Saturday, December 31, 2011

Downtown Music of the Year - Vocal Edition, part Deux

Without further ado, I count down the 5 best vocal albums of the year starting with...

5. Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge

The title track on Abigail Washburn's "City of Refuge" begins quite humbly. It's just an Appalachian Old-Time clawhammer banjo tune, dry and unadorned. The lyrics begin simply enough too. "I got a mother, I got a father," Washburn intones in her clear, cracker-barrel voice, seeming as an extension of the banjo sound itself. As the song continues, more sounds are added little by little. A droning accordion, crescendo, a second voice, fiddle, and before you know it, the world of Appalachian Old-Time music has been transformed. It has the sense of U2's castles-in-the-air aesthetic, but more tied to the land, organic.

The rest of the album explores this concept further, marrying American folk traditions with the grand gestures of arena rock, the quirky orchestrations of indie, and even some flavors from the Far East (Washburn has spent quite a bit of time in China. Ask her about the time she got thrown out of cab in Bejing for not doing a traditional Chinese song right). The fact that all these disparate sounds are wholly integrated is a result of healthy collaboration. Washburn's main songwriting partner Kai Welch brings along his piano and guitar chops and his rock-hewn instincts. The band is then filled out with great hired guns like Chris Funk of the Decemberists and guitarist Bill Frisell. And it's all guided by the steady hand of crack producer Tucker Martine.

The production values are a throwback just like the music itself - to a time when big studios were playgrounds for experimentation in addition to hit factories. With the marriage of tradition and experimentation, Washburn and co. have created an album with strong roots that allow it to grow into a lush, flowering tree. It's not a "something for everyone" kind of album, but a singular work that anyone can embrace.

4. Hazmat Modine - Cicada

Back in the days before amps and microphones, the way to get a roomful of people moving was to have a big band of loud instruments - trumpets, trombones, tuba, and plenty of drums - and set 'em loose. Singer/harmonicat Wade Schuman's Hazmat Modine (a hazardous central heater - they do blow some dangerously hot air) certainly harkens back to those days, but with an ear for diverse world styles that can only be of the moment.

The tunes on "Cicada" are an encyclopedic collection of old-school brass-band styles, from down-home blues and New Orleans second-line to calypso, ska, and even a bit of tango. The band of New York studio and theater virtuosos swings through each style with equal aplomb, creating arrangements with tight unison figures and unfettered, improvisatory joy. The seemingly-lost Stax records hit "I've Been Lonely For So Long" is positively booty shaking, especially on that killer outro (let go longer please!).

But the real stunner on this album is Schuman's voice. It's infinitely versatile, with a bluesman's gravel, a falsetto in the stratosphere, and anything in between. You spend the album's full runtime in slack-jawed amazement, good feeling piled upon good feeling. If we do actually suffer an apocalypse in 2012, thank goodness there will still be good music to make us happy that doesn't need to be plugged in.

3. The Roots - undun

People like to talk about the many different sides of The Roots. There's the greatest band in late nite side with Jimmy Fallon. There's the funky jam band side when they perform live. There's the crack studio band that backs up the likes of John Legend. And then there's the group that has made worldly, thoughtful hip-hop albums of their own for 20 years. Well I'd like to argue that there's only one side to The Roots. Or better yet, they make the case themselves on their terribly ambitious Hip-Hop concept album (or maybe an opera, or a film), "undun."

"undun" tells the story of one Redford Stephens in reverse, starting with his death and recounting the choices and events that brought him there. The album is both political and philosophical, dealing with issues of fate and free will, especially how these concepts relate to issues of urban poverty. A rotating cast of singers and rappers (Bilal, Big K.R.I.T, Phonte, and more) alongside Roots MC Black Thought illuminate the many different sides of Stephens' mind in a highly personal way. Stephens is everyman and no man, not a fully-drawn character, but a loose archetype brought to life by the personal experience of each vocalist.

The music that backs up these dark and potent ruminations shows just how much music is inside the head of de facto music director/drummer ?uestlove. The album runs the gauntlet of music styles from lush neo-soul to evocative film score to free-jazz freakout. Questo leads the band through all these varied styles with aplomb, breathing life into quantized grooves and synthesized soundscapes. In fact, the album's musical seed is the short piano prelude "Redford" from inscrutable indie darling Sufjan Stevens' "Michigan" album. Just the variety of music explored and appropriated on "undun" shows that The Roots don't see any walls between their personalities, it's all part of their huge and playful aesthetic.

"undun" is as much a true Hip-Hop album as "Sergeant Peppers'" was a true rock album. By embracing such disparate styles and even abstraction, these two albums push their respective genres into art music territory. It's clear that both are transcendent classics of their time and place. But as the last plaintive string chords ring out at the end of "undun," the question remains: what's next?

2. Donnacha Dennehy/Crash Ensemble - Grá Agus Bás

When I loaded this album onto my computer, for some reason iTunes decided to import the second half first, a setting of W.B. Yeats poems for the soprano Dawn Upshaw, called "That The Night Come." So when I pushed play after it finished, this was the first piece I heard.

And I got one of those ohmygod-massive-chills-I-don't-know-what-to-do moments.

I'm someone who believes that if you come up with a heavenly sound, there's no reason to move away from that. In that first part of the song cycle - "He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead" - Dennehy magically concocts one of those heavenly soundworlds and sits there blissfully for four minutes (that I wish would go on for just a bit more!). The combination of string harmonics, high piano notes, electric guitar, bowed vibraphone, and smatterings of woodwinds congeals into one perfectly homogenous but ever-shifting mass. You feel as if you're suspended in a light-blue crystal, with little flashes of northern lights skipping across your gaze. This accompaniment doesn't feel like fancy dressing for the vocal line, but instead reverses the relationship. Upshaw must navigate her way through the texture carefully, not to disturb the delicate crystalline arrangement. She passes this treacherous test with flying colors, her warm voice becoming a true part within the gorgeous texture.

Dennehy is a true master of texture and orchestration and throughout this album, he creates many fascinating soundworlds to accompany the diverse moods of the text and diverse styles of singing. In contrast to Upshaw's clear operatic soprano on "That The Night Come," Iarla Ó Lionáird shows off his laser-beam, Sean-nos style voice on the album's title piece. To bring the music closer to its traditional origins, Dennehy experiments with more natural "just intonation" rather than the 12-note equal tempered tuning we're accustomed to. The piece is a 25-minute journey to the past and back, a luminous vision of a world we know only from memory.

1. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

So far on this list we've seen styles from around the world, unheard-of voices, kicking it old-school, embracing technology, party music, ponder music. They're all special, satisfying listening experiences, but there's a reason why they occupy spots 2 to 10.

Because tUnE-yArDs has it all. Merrill Garbus' sophomore album delivers on all the promise of her lo-lo-fi debut and then some. Her voice, from vulnerable whisper to terrifying scream, seems to come from some West African country who's name you forget, or may not actually exist. Armed with an array of loop pedals, she multiplies this powerful, acidic voice into a choir, or really a sonic army. Then there are the gut-busting drum beats, the enveloping bass lines of partner-in-jazz-crimes Nate Brenner, and some meaty dual-sax hooks that stir this mystic brew to a fever pitch. It's got the energy and let's-play-together vibe of a drum circle, but without the haphazard sonic construction. "w h o k i l l" is a party, whether it comes blasting out of a DJ sound system or your earbuds.

Garbus certainly has her way with words as well. The opening "My Country" is the official anthem of a partly-cloudy patriot, while "Gangsta" takes on the issues of cultural-musical appropriation present in Garbus' music itself. The infectious hooks and near-manic energy of all these songs make you want to listen again right after they've finished, and they reward you for it. Each time, you'll hear the composite riffs and beats a bit differently, realizing their gloriously human imperfections. It isn't music that's trying to be simply likable. It's so very human and puts itself out there without apology. And when music is this real and natural, you have to love it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best Downtown Music of the Year - Instrumental Intrigue

2011 is ending fast, and there's still 15 more great albums to talk about! So onto my best instrumental albums of the year list, numbers 10 to 6.

10. Tim Berne/Jim Black/Nels Cline - The Veil

What happens when you put three avant-improv masters in a sweltering storefront in the East Village, let in a standing room audience of 80, and turn off the fans?

Some real hot music, that's what.

Ok, ok, haha, I'll stop with the puns. But this music is truly burning.

Black drives the bus with a manic energy. Cline splatters the canvas with torrid sheets of guitar-paint. Berne somehow wiggles a sense of narrative through this dense sonic thicket. It's a real head-trip and a massive adrenaline rush; a thinking-person's rock, and a rockin' person's jazz.

It's lightning in a bottle.

That should be enough to get you to check it out, but if you want a bit more play-by-play, I have some here.

9. Joel Harrison String Choir - The Music of Paul Motian

You've heard me go on about the uniqueness and vitality Paul Motian's drumming. But one can't have a three-decade career as a bandleader in jazz without having some compositional voice. Motian's compositional acumen tends to be overshadowed by his inimitable drumming, or his drumming is at least understood as a necessary ingredient for the success of his compositions.

Guitarist Joel Harrison disagrees with that critical appraisal and makes a compelling case for the strength and beauty of Motian's output through his rearrangements for an ensemble of 2 violins, 2 violas, cello, and 2 guitars.

That's right. No drummers here.

Motian certainly had a soft spot for the sounds of string instruments. He worked with soundscaping guitarist Bill Frisell for thirty years, then put together bands with 2 or 3 guitarists, and later embraced the wily microtonal sounds of Mat Maneri's viola (which also appears on Mr. Harrison's album). While Motian composed at the piano (having learned from Keith Jarrett in the 1970s), he probably never had the chops to compose multiple lines at once. Instead, he'd keep the sustain pedal down, letting rich chords ring out while lacing folk-like melodies above.

Harrison has serious classical-composing chops of his own, and dresses up Motian's tunes with ornate counterpoint. Yet these arrangements play to the strengths of these improv-ready musicians, never weighed down in filigree, always putting the tunes first. Just the sound of the string choir emphasizes the rustic feeling of Motian's tunes, strengthening his style's identity as surreal Americana, like a mystical landscape of Andrew Wyeth. "It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago" is utterly transporting, unfolding like a rough-hewn cartoon flight over grain-colored hills.

Although the album came out 11 months before Motian's death at the age of 80, it proves both a fitting tribute and a convincing bit of advocacy. Here's to hoping that Harrison's tribute inspires others to explore and perform Motian's miraculous music.

8. Tyshawn Sorey - Oblique - I

Barrels through the knottiest mixed-meters with the greatest of ease. Has hands faster than Buddy Rich's and softer than Shelly Manne's.

And he plays trombone?

Yes, Tyshawn Sorey is a drumming superhero. He's been a vital sidekick for math-jazz innovators Steve Coleman, Steve Lehman, and Vijay Iyer for nearly a decade, but more recently has staked out his own unique compositional space. 2009's "Koan" was a gorgeously sparse affair, and a real surprise to those (myself included) that only knew his hyperprecise prog drumming. "Oblique I" splits the difference, featuring a set of compositions that are somehow both cerebral and inviting.

Sorey's never afraid of odd group combinations (trombone and acoustic guitar anyone?), but on "Oblique I" opts for a seemingly traditional jazz instrumentation - alto sax (the firecracker Loren Stillman), guitar (the bracing Todd Neufield), piano (the triple-armed John Escreet), bass (the rock-solid Chris Tordini), & drums. Yet this doesn't mean the results are any less novel and adventurous.

In terms of both titles (just numbers) and syntax, Sorey's compositions echo those of his teacher Anthony Braxton. There are just the vaguest hints of tonality and tunefulness, but a huge dynamic range that nary another record can match. The pieces' through-lines are built from these dynamic and textural contrasts, yielding moments of catharsis and heartbreaking vulnerability. Sorey himself guides the proceedings with his peerless drumming. He tunes his drums low for jazz, enveloping the band in a warm halo. And even though he has chops out the wazoo, he never flaunts them in a Buddy Rich-type way, instead electing to develop his own melodies around the toms and cymbals.

"Oblique" describes the music quite perceptively. It's rich and mysterious, never coming straight at the listener. One who decides to follow these circuitous routes will be very much rewarded.

7. The Chiara String Quartet & Matmos - Jefferson Friedman: Quartets

I'd love to imagine Franz Josef Haydn, the proverbial godfather of the string quartet, taking a trip to the present day to hear what music is like. He comes to New York, hearing that there are some really great string quartets doing cool things there. He stops in at the place these cool string quartets like to play most, Le Poussin Rouge on Bleecker Street. One of the said cool quartets - the Chiara String Quartet - walks out on stage to play their friend Jefferson Friedman's String Quartet no. 2. They start and Haydn's head asplodes.

Cuz the sounds that just came out of the ensemble he thought he knew so well are so far beyond his wildest imagination.

Friedman's 2nd String Quartet was written for his friends of the Chiara Quartet in 1999, and it's almost criminal that it has taken so long to make its way to disk. The head-sploding intro is a string quartet gone death metal, all full-bowed sixteenth notes and gnarly dissonance. If anyone tells you classical music is boring, just play them that intro. But the piece isn't just shredding. There are these time-stopping long tones, which sound as if you're staring across an cold, undisturbed lake at sunset. There are burbling pizzicato grooves that slink and tremble underneath wry, undulating melodies.

Friedman is a master at exploring all of the new possibilities these old instruments can offer. In order to make a violin growl like an electric guitar, Friedman has violinist Rebecca Fisher (actually, everyone does this at some point) dig into the strings very close to the bridge, an eerie effect called sul ponticello. But it's not just specific techniques. Friedman seems to know what each member does well and the players know what Friedman likes to write. With composer and ensemble working together so closely, the piece takes on a life beyond the notes. There's a reason why the opening daga-daga-daga seems to jump out of the speakers and grab your throat.

To further the spirit of collaboration, Friedman asked his friends in the electronics duo Matmos to put together some remixes of his string quartets. It's a testament to the strength and imagination of the pieces that they sound just fine overlaid with quantized electro grooves and glitchy effects.

6. Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel

I had meant to review this album when it came out in June. But after listening to it once, I felt I didn't get it enough to be able to translate it. It definitely hit me like a sack of bricks that "Avenging Angel" was a monumental statement by a real deep musician. But what were all of those ideas that Craig Taborn was throwing around? Where did they come from?

Six months later, "Avenging Angel" is still as astounding and inscrutable as ever; astounding and inscrutable as why the world's best (for my money) improvising pianist has the proclivity to only put out an album of his own every several years.

In many ways, "Avenging Angel" is a very self-conscious ECM solo piano record in the tradition of Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley. The opening "The Broad Day King" is Jarrett-like in its lightly-bobbing groove and effortless lyricism, while "Diamond Turning Dream" shares Bley's penchant for pointillism. And of course its recorded in high ECM style, with that crystal piano sweeping through a reverberant hall. Yet all these influences - and tons more from classical impressionism to metal-ish dissonances - are distilled by Taborn's well-pondered aesthetic.

From a technical standpoint, Taborn is primarily concerned with two main ideas - developing musical ideas simultaneously with both hands (gleaned from the multi-keyboard work of Weather Report's Joe Zawinul) and exploring every possible color and articulation that a piano can express. "Neverland" is a tour de force in both departments. Each hand plays its own melody, rarely more than one note at a time each. While the two lines relate to each other harmonically, they don't line up in a way that makes one subservient to the other. Taborn achieves this remarkable independence through attacking notes in different ways, ping-ponging the listener's attention from one line to the other. The time isn't as relaxed as a simpler improvisation like "Broad Day King," but it shows just how hard it is to do what Taborn is attempting. Many players with this kind of technique tend to coast too much (see Corea, Chick), always doing what they do best. It's great to see someone like Taborn overload his CPU and see what unexpected things come out.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best Downtown Music of the Year - Vocal Edition

Merry Christmas Even and Happy 5th night of Hanukkah! It is during this time of year when we all wax nostalgic upon seeing cousins and old friends home from college. And considering my propensity to shift the subject of conversation to what my father calls “Les Grandes Topiques Musicales,” I wax nostalgic about all the great music I heard for the first time this year.

Since working at NPR gave me access to a huge swath of this year’s recorded output, I heard a lot more great albums this year than last. So in a spirit of inclusion, I have not just one but two best-of-2011 lists – one for vocal albums and one for instrumentals. As last year, the official downtown music rules apply. All of these albums don’t fit super-comfortably into any one genre, and that’s why they sounded different than most else I heard this year.

Today we’ll start with the vocal list, counting down from number 10 to number 6.

10. Crooked Still – Friends of Fall EP

This quintet of Boston-based newgrass virtuosos has sadly just gone on hiatus (er’body’s got other projects, like singer Aoife O’Donovan touring around with Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile), but not before they put together this valedictory EP. Each member took on the role of bandleader for a day, bringing in a new tune or a favorite cover. The results, at just under 23 minutes, show just how wide their concept of folk is.

There’s a frisky cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work it Out,” and a heartbreakingly spare one of Paul Simon’s Bachian “American Tune.” And then there are originals like banjoist Greg Liszt’s (who has a Ph.D in Biology from MIT btw) “It’ll End Too Soon,” and singer O’Donovan’s “The Peace of Wild Things” that meld pop chord progressions and poetic lyrics, while still rooted in the American Old Time style. But the highlight may be fiddler Brittany Haas’ arrangement of the traditional “When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round,” a driving update that makes the tune as fresh as any of the originals. Lines fly between Haas and cellist Tristan Clarridge. Bassist Corey DiMario grounds the activity with a deep time-feel. And over top of it all, O’Donovan intones the tune with a quiet intensity, as if she is screaming through a whisper.

9. Becca Stevens Band – Weightless

Becca Stevens' "Weightless" opens with a gentle pep talk of a title track. "I know this is hard but by holding on you only make it harder," she sings. "So let go, embrace what you are." This broken, vulnerable character is a near-constant presence on the album, sometimes lamenting ("No More"), sometimes fighting ("Canyon Dust"). Combined with some choice covers, including a wonderful folksy reinvention of the Smiths' "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,", Stevens seems to have curated a typical set of confessional, singer-songwriter-y songs.

But what makes this album special is the "band" part. Stevens' assertive, passionate vocals are backed by an array of her exotic guitars (like the South American charango on the cover), Liam Robinson's accordion, and a rocking rhythm team of Chris Tordini on bass and Jordan Perlson on drums. The arrangements are rich and intricate, like the 3-part vocal canon on the title track. It's totally hip and worldly, an organically-grown fusion of folk, jazz, and pop. The energy and bounce of the Becca Stevens Band makes this a uniquely irresistible confession. You'll want to start it again the moment it ends.

8. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

In an era where reinvention rules music, the greatest risk can be sticking with what you know. It's a risk that 2008's biggest breakout band Fleet Foxes took for their sophomore album and it has paid massive dividends. Their Blue Ridge-via-Seattle sound struck a major chord with digital world-weary fans, particularly in Great Britain, where their debut album went gold. But because of the Pitchfork-induced obsession with an indie band's schtick, another album of homey vocal harmonies may have landed with a thud among cognoscenti.

But Fleet Foxes proved that they were more than up to the challenge with the release of "Helplessness Blues." Instead of abandoning a core band sound and self-consciously experimenting with other forms, lead singer Robin Pecknold and co dove deeper into what they do best, finding new unexplored avenues within the well-hashed over realm of folk rock. Instead of relying on the wall-of-sound harmonies, Pecknold stepped closer to center stage, revealing new expressive shades of his voice.  The band expanded simple songs into mini-symphonies with multiple sections, leading listeners through narratives rather than relying on hooks and images. And no band seemed to be more in step with the millennial generation zeitgeist of heading into an unforgiving world after a childhood in Lake Woebegone than the Fleet Foxes on the record's title track.

Pecknold's voice, direct-yet-mysterious lyrics, and the band's rich arrangements come together in full on "The Shrine/An Argument." A first person narrative of jilted love and yearning for peace, the song goes from burbling guitar arpeggios, to thrashing downstrumming, to an angelic a capella chorale, to a free-jazz freakout, ending with a series of plaintive string chords, revealing the many complicated emotions of the song's narrator. Pecknold is at his most affecting here, as his yelping, "Sunshine over me no matter what I do," is positively chill-inducing. "Helplessness Blues" is no rehash of their first album, but an even richer listening experience.

7. The Claudia Quintet + 1 – What is the Beautiful

Beat poetry accompanied by jazz has a much-maligned reputation. It seems terribly self-indulgent for someone to go up on a stage and say whatever and then some musicians play whatever and somehow insist that it's profoundly meaningful and if you don't get it, it's your own fault. There is a bit of truth to this stereotype, but what it really reveals is how hard it is to marry poetry - with its own internal rhythms and sounds - to music, which attempts to impose new rhythms and sounds on top of it. When it works though, it can be really special, like on pianist Fred Hersch's magnum opus jazz oratorio, Leaves of Grass, based on Walt Whitman's poetry.

Drummer John Hollenbeck and vocalist Kurt Elling were on that record, and the two have again teamed up with Mr. Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet (the + 1 being pianist Matt Mitchell) for another successful marriage of poetry and jazz, featuring the work of the under-known Beat forerunner Kenneth Patchen. Elling's garrulous spoken-word baritone shares the vocal duties with the wistful falsetto of Theo Bleckmann. Unavailable for a recording session with the rest of the band, Mr. Elling recorded his readings separately, and Hollenbeck then composed music around it, dressing the alternating jocular and poignant words in lush textures of accordion and bowed vibraphone. Bleckmann performs a more tradition role, singing Hollenbeck's musical settings of Patchen's poetry with pinpoint intonation and aching understatement - the setting of "The Snow is Deep on the Ground" feels so natural as to suggest an otherworldly collaboration between the living composer and deceased poet.

The album's title track features Elling spilling incantations, telling the band to "Pause./And begin again." As the members of band spin layers of lines around Elling, he intones lines of simple idealism:

It would take little to be free.
That no man hate another man,
Because he is black;
Because he is yellow;
Because he is white;
Because we are everyman.

The music here is simple, yet unfamiliar. It perks up your attention, but forces you to concentrate on the clear words, making them hit home in new, powerful way.

6. Wilco – The Whole Love

It's weird that America's consistently-best live rock band is so inscrutable when it heads into the studio. Wilco's art music experimentalists one day, Stax Records nostalgists the next. In their live shows, they somehow make it all work together, but have yet to translate that experience to the studio.

Until now.

At the moment the torrid groove and burbling distortion kick in at the top of "Art of Almost," you know "The Whole Love" isn't a nice little Dad Rock record. The song is all wall of sound and cryptic lyrics, the most "out" Wilco has gone since "Less Than You Think" on 2004's "A Ghost is Born." Even more straight-ahead songs, like the following track "I Might," are filled with edgy and unpredictable sonic touches, creating a sense of nervous vitality.

The album's capstone is the gorgeously languorous final track, "One Sunday Morning." It's a 12-minute meditation on the complicated relationship of a father and son, punctuated by Mikael Jorgenson's liquid piano and a luminous glockenspiel hook. It's that kind of miraculous song that speaks to the darkest parts of the soul and yet seems to pass in an instant. 

"The Whole Love" may not be an epoch-defining record like "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," but it certainly is the first of theirs to encapsulate the whole Wilco.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What I Learned from Paul Motian

Paul Motian at his favorite spot - the Village Vanguard
In the weeks since jazz drummer Paul Motian's death on November 22, the response from the online music community has been large, warm and beautiful. On the day of his passing, Motian was trending on twitter in New York. Peter Hum of the Ottawa Citizen compiled a comprehensive list of remembrances by fellow musicians. Photographer John Rogers revealed Motian's generous spirit off the bandstand in a moving piece at NPR's A Blog Supreme. Nate Chinen's New York Times playlist this weekend features all new music that calls Motian to mind. And today, Ethan Iverson has blessed his readers with his own critical-personal appreciation.

So what does that leave me to say you ask?

Well just that delving into Paul Motian's music my freshman year fundamentally altered how I think about and play the drums.

You see, up until about December 2008, I was a Drummer. Yes, capital D Drummer. My first drumming inspiration was Buddy Rich. My first instructional video was Dave Weckl's "Back to Basics" (or, look at that hair!). I was obsessed with technique, spending many hours trying to master the mysterious "secret weapons" of drumming, like the Moeller whip and the push-pull. Speed was the name of the game. My technique intoxication was sort of the drumming equivalent of "chicks dig the longball." And when I entered college, let's just say I thought I had some real pop in my sticks.

I got some real wake-up calls during my first semester of big band rehearsals. I was able to play blazing single stroke rolls around the kit, and so filled up every little space I could with them. Listening back to recordings of myself from that autumn, my drumming sounds leaden and artless (let's not even talk about my time-feel issues). But I couldn't hear that at the time, so when my director told me to dial down the density, I got both angry (why is he getting in my way) and terribly nervous (what is it that I'm doing wrong). My instincts for fixing my problems brought me back to those technique videos and method books, thinking that I just needed more control. Didn't Dave Weckl and Buddy Rich play super dense all the time? Why couldn't I?

In the end, it wasn't more chops that I needed. It was bigger ears and a new aesthetic. No more Drummer with a capital D. No more secret weapons. Just doing a helluva lot more with a lot less.

Luckily I had gotten friendly with a junior trumpet player in the band named Harrison. Harrison convinced me to check out my first-ever Free Jazz show, and then started giving me CD recommendations. First: ditch all that Brad Mehldau and Aaron Parks moody piano stuff. Second: DAVE DOUGLAS! Third: did you know that Paul Motian has a ton of sick solo albums?

I certainly knew who Motian was at that time. I had all the classic Bill Evans recordings from the late '50s and early '60s and had eaten them up when I was learning jazz piano in high school. There was a nice big picture of him in my favorite method book, John Riley's Beyond Bop Drumming. I even had his Bill Evans tribute album, with Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, and Joe Lovano. Can't say I had listened to it much though. It didn't have all those purdy piano lines that I liked in the Evans originals.

Anyway, I took Harrison's advice and on the afternoon of December 2, 2008, I checked out three Motian CDs from the music library on campus - the Electric Bebop Band playing Monk and Powell, On Broadway vol. 1, and Story of Maryam. I surreptitiously uploaded them onto my computer that night.

Story of Maryam was first on my listening list, due to its 4 1/2-star rating, plus editor's pick, on All Music Guide (this was before I had musical opinions, ok?). I finally got around to it that Saturday afternoon, December 6. It was one of the cold, dry December days, the ones of chapped lips and hoodies worn indoors. I put on the album to accompany my Religion class reading.

I then stopped my Religion class reading.

The opening track "9x9" shot out of my headphones in a blaze of dual saxophones, shrouded by clouds of distorted guitar, and churned about by the stuttering rumble of shadowy drums and the sky-streaking clash of laser-bright cymbals. The music was deeply mysterious, but not incomprehensible. There was a folkish simplicity to the melody, though abstracted by the free-floating tempo. The rest of the album continued in this mode, bringing me into a reverie of early winters in New England. Which is saying something because I've never experienced them before.

What shocked me so much about Story of Maryam was how the first regular, insistent groove only arrived 5 minutes from the end of the record. I had just began to experiment with free-tempo playing with Harrison and thought it was just about playing whatever you wanted at any time. Naturally, I found listening to our stuff a bit boring and saw this free-time thing as a brief contrast to more groove-oriented sections. Motian's playing totally changed my preconceptions. Even without regular tempos, the album was full of momentum and expressive contrast. While Motian's playing on "9x9" was aggressively defined, his playing on the ensuing ballad "5 Miles to Wrentham" was spacious and intently patient, drawing attention to the subtlest shadings on his cymbals. Whatever the mood of the piece, Motian's drumming was totally efficient, which is surprising considering how loose it was. The strokes were seemingly random, but by the end, I could tell that they were meticulously placed.

Meticulous chaos: that's what I learned from Motian that winter, and it's just what I needed to hear at that time.

As I continued to eat up Motian's discography, I began to incorporate his approach into my playing. I cut down on snare drum chatter, started using fatter sticks, tried to strip down each performance to its bare essentials. After 3 years of this (and the addition of 14 more hours of his music on my hard drive), my drumming is fundamentally changed, yet still far removed from Motian's mysterious meticulousness and sound-so-distinctive-you-can-recognize-him-with-one-stroke.

Motian's influence on me probably comes through most clearly on a piece and I wrote and recorded this past spring called "Illyria Suite." The opening and concluding sections feature pointillistic, free-time drumming over a folkish tune. Ok, my drum & cymbal sounds are totally different than his, and the piece heads to some very un-Motian places in the middle, but I would not have even been able to conceptually imagine a piece like this before hearing Motian's music.

[Go listen to "Illyria Suite" here!]

Even after his passing, Motian will never cease to inspire my playing. There are always more layers to peal away from each performance. I'm now going to check back on Song of Maryam and see what else I can dig out tonight.

See you over the rainbow, Paul.