March 25th will mark what would have been the 82nd birthday of legendary jazz drummer and composer Paul Motian. The same weekend, on the 22nd, a tribute concert curated by longtime collaborators and members of the Paul Motian Trio—Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano—and featuring more than 20 artists who worked with Paul over the years, will take place at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space in New York. I caught up with Frisell last week to chat briefly about his years playing with Paul and the experience of curating a tribute to a jazz icon. Some excerpts from the interview are included below.
There is, I think, a heightened self-awareness that is integral to jazz. Its future is almost dependent on familiarity and continual interaction with its past—legends, techniques, and sacred texts passed down from one generation to another in the grooves of dusty old records, over whiskey in smokey clubs, on a shared piano bench in downtown apartments. The same stories told night after night, but never the same way twice—it’s that sense of here and now and never again that is, arguably, the lifeblood of the great American art form.
Paul Motian was already an influential figure in the world of jazz by the time of his first meeting with the young Bill Frisell in January of 1981. As one third of the classic Bill Evans trio and after more than a dozen albums with Keith Jarrett, Motian’s influence on contemporary drumming was already undeniable. Still early on in his career, I ask him what those early sessions were like. It’s a meeting Frisell still recalls with fondness and even a touch of disbelief:
“Well, the very first time I went to play with him was in 1981…and you know, I’d never met him….So, I go over there and it’s me and Paul and Marc Johnson was there…(Marc was the last bass player to play with Bill Evans)…[and] Bill had just passed away recently, so they were talking about that….And they said, well, let’s play ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, which is this George Gershwin tune that I really associated with Bill Evans.”
“It was another one of these kind of heavy moments…playing that tune with those guys. And playing electric guitar? How am I fitting in with this, you know?…He thought it was ok, I guess. We kept on playing and he kept calling me back and I’d go over there every week or every few days even.”
From those early sessions, with the addition of saxman Joe Lovano, emerged the Paul Motian Trio who would spend more than a quarter century pushing the limits of the jazz trio and, true to form, of time itself as Motian turned his attention to his own compositions. Even as each pursued their own projects, playing with other bands and each new generation, the Trio continued to perform together, including annual residencies at the Village Vanguard, for the better part of three decades, more often than not with little to no rehearsal.
“I never knew what was gonna happen. I think that’s what kept it going for so long. Every time we played, it felt like it was new. So there was sort of like this double thing: the comfort of being with these guys that you knew so well, but then Paul, he just never stood still…Every note he played was searching for something just beyond the horizon,” Bill recalls of their performances. “[It was] always just right on the edge of not knowing whether we were going to make it or not. But I think…if we had just gone through the same thing every time we played, it would never have lasted that long.”
Their annual runs at the Vanguard continued until Paul’s death in November of 2011.
“When he first passed away,…I was kind of lost as far as able to play the music. It was just like this giant chasm—this empty hole as far as thinking about how am I ever going to be able to play this music again….[A] couple of months after he passed away, there was a little gathering at the Village Vanguard….[That] was the first time…Joe and I played just duo. We played his tunes there and it was just such a relief in a way…It really felt like Paul was there with us. It was almost like he was handing it over, saying it was OK to just go on and play the music. It felt so good, like the music was still alive and soon after that, I started playing it with some of my bands.”
And now, as we approach what would have been Paul’s 82nd birthday, the handover continues. In the end, Paul’s tunes, too, will enter the canon, to be passed to the next generation along with those of Monk and Evans and all the great legends of whose works he once sang from behind the drums.