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Jazz Royalty Unite for Paul Motian Tribute Concert at Symphony Space

by Craig Brinker


Photo credit: Alan Nahigian

Paul Motian's career spanned more than 50 years, including work with numerous ensembles, participation in more than 100 recordings, and performances with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the last century. His legacy within the jazz community was evidenced at a tribute concert in his honor at Symphony Space on Friday night, where more than 20 friends and collaborators—among them, Billy Hart, Gary Peacock, Ravi Coltrane, Gerri Allen, and Ed Schuller—took the stage to play Motian's music, as well as other music that loved by the famed drummer. 

While many listeners recall him from his time playing with Bill Evans' trio or Keith Jarrett, Motian's late career found him recording and touring prolifically as a bandleader—first with a quintet, then a trio, and most recently with a group called the Electric Bebop Band.

Most of the first half of the concert explored Motian's tunes in free-jazz context—extended, dissonant explorations channeled to the most adventurous of listeners. Joint artistc directors Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell took the stage, first playing the title track of Motian's premiere record as a bandleader, "Conception Vessel." Quickly setting the tone for the evening, they played the tune as a far-reaching, exploratory duet.

When Billy Hart and his quartet took the stage, however, the tenor of the concert changed, with the players performing a straight-ahead composition of Hart's that cleansed the aural pallette. Bad Plus, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, and Bill Frisell followed up with Motian's "Abacus," displaying the expert cohesiveness of Bad Plus' rhythm section. Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and David King have been playing with each other so long and so consistently that the depth of their communication was immediatly apparent, giving unity and structure to the music.

Even though most of Motian's tunes are highly chromatic and have complex, syncopated rhythms, he also composed some slow, beautiful melodies that are often associated with Bill Frisell's echoing guitar tone. Motian's "Introduction (Lament for Guitar)" was played by a group of five guitarists—Jakob Bro, Steve Cardenas, Bill Frisell, Ben Monder, and Jerome Harris—with the result being an all-envolping, haunting sound. The overlapping guitars created an everchanging, multifaceted texture that made the keening melody even more beautiful and elegiac.

The last tune of the nearly four-hour concert, a Motian composition entitled "Drum Music," was a sensational send-off from the 17 musicians on stage, a performance that likely came as close as anyone will ever get to forming the Paul Motian Band. The piece was as loud and chaotic as one would expect from a group this large, but eventually the ensemble found its way back to the head. Hearing this magnificent ensemble play the melody in unison and finally resolve on the tonic with such brassy bravado brought a smile to every listener's face.