Release date: January 26, 2004
People writing about Paul Motian (myself included) are quite fond of saying that the drummer liked to “play around the beat.” But after revisiting the material he chose for his own :rarum compilation, I have begun to rethink that assessment. For one thing, it implies a Platonic beat hidden in the music to begin with, as if it were (even in the absence of its overt articulation) always there to be served. But might it not also be possible that Motian redefined what the beat meant to begin with? For another, it risks pigeonholing him as a sketch artist. But might not his organisms be mature by the time they reach us? Listening, for example, to “One In Four” (from the Paul Bley Quartet’s 1988 self-titled album), one can hardly deny that his brushes explore the kit as anything less than a painter’s own brushes would a canvas, such that every portion of the emerging image—from background to foreground—requires its own rhythm. Otherwise, the heavily reverbed soprano saxophone of John Surman might not feel so sentient, nor the piano of Bley himself so grounded in self-reflection. Such seeds were already sown in the soil of 1973’s Conception Vessel, the title of which defines itself as an instrument of adaptive truth. So, too, in verses fished from the waters of the Paul Motian Band’s 1982 Psalm. In both “Fantasm” and “Mandeville,” he plays flowing string games with the guitar of Bill Frisell as if it were a tangle of synapses just waiting to complete a thought or action.
Yet the deepest end into which we are granted diving rights is compassed by the Paul Motian Trio in its various iterations. On 1978’s Dance, he uses the title track as a means of filling in the mosaic of bandmates David Izenzon (bass) and Charles Brackeen (soprano saxophone). And while it may seem that he is deconstructing the very idea of a dance—or, in its companion track “Asia,” the very idea of geography—if anything he is showing us that ceremony is improvisational at heart and that without listening before speaking, the sacred would never catch us in its net. Further selections from 1979’s Le Voyage, replacing Izenzon with Jean-François Jenny-Clark (another bassist who would leave us too soon), “Folk Song For Rosie” and “Abacus,” are masterful examples of Motian’s ability to uncover the plasticity of configuration. Brackeen’s soprano flows through the former tune’s landscape like a spontaneously formed rivulet in search of an end, whereas his tenor revels in the latter tune’s flora, which grows faster than he can cut it. In light of all this, it makes sense that in “It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago,” Motian’s 1985 masterpiece with Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the drummer is barely there, for if we dare characterize his sound as reaching us from another dimension, where everything comes into being through music, then it is only logical that he should return to that same realm, leaving us to parse his echoes with fallen words.