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ON THE DEATH OF PAUL MOTIAN, JAZZ DRUMMER

 

 

By Fred Setterberg

LOS ANGELES, 11 DECEMBER 2011 — As a teenager, I purchased the album, The Bill Evans Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard. Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Ten days after completing the recording, LaFaro died in a car accident on his way home from a gig. Spooky. You couldn’t help thinking about it while listening to "I Loves You, Porgy," which everybody knew was the best cut on the album. It was about just two things. Desire and death. That’s what my best friend Frankie told me and I had to agree.

At sixteen, Frankie and I were both deep, deep into jazz — the only teenagers in our suburban blue-collar town to mail twelve dollars to New York City in order to secure biweekly subscriptions to Down Beat magazine. We scanned every issue for news of the most romantic world imaginable: the world of Birdland, the Five Spot, and the Blue Note, where John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin and Johnny Hodges all held court on the saxophone while zip young men in silk suits and pink shirts donned cheap sunglasses long past sundown and clinked chilled tumblers of Scotch and soda with slinky young women wearing their thick black hair slashed to the shoulders and carrying in their purses the keys to their own studio apartments.

Frankie’s favorite album was Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The liner notes, jointly written by the composer and his psychologist, suggested that Mingus regarded the album as a kind of love song. I was intrigued by the possibility that the sound of love might reside in the snort and gargle of the baritone sax and the trumpets bleating like duck calls and the trombones churning slightly above the low end of their register.

But Frankie said it wasn’t love we were listening to at all.

What we were listening to was the sound of sex.

We listened to the recording endlessly. There were lush ensemble passages that sounded as though Duke Ellington had suddenly taken command —  punctuated by Mingus’s hog calls of encouragement as each member of the orchestra stepped up to solo. The sharp little spurts of ecstasy when Booker Ervin rolled out lines of West Texas blues on tenor or Jaki Byard hammered fistfuls of jagged piano chords. Mingus thrumming, poking, plunking, and finally caressing his bass like a man with three hands and twenty fingers. The reeds and brass blending together in a tissue of cries and tiny percussive sighs of satisfaction.

Frankie certainly had a point about the meaning of this music. How could I argue with a man of the world like Frankie?

But something else was going on, too. I could hear it. Something at the bottom of the music. Sounds full of signifying, though they made no sense at all when reduced to words. The flamenco guitar bursting into flames and the alto saxophone squealing. The ochre bash of cymbals and earth-brown bass lines charred to black. There was nothing in this music that spoke in the least to my own pale and limited experience. Except what lay beneath the sound. That deep well of undeniable longing.

Longing always brought me back to Evans, LaFaro, and Motian. 

Still does…  When Paul Motian died last week at 80, the last of the trio to disappear from this world, I listened again and again to Live at the Village Vanguard.

 In the final ninety seconds of "I Loves You, Porgy," Bill Evans hit the main line of the melody, while LaFaro paused at each beat and Motian scratched at his snare drum with brushes. And in the background, you could hear the muttering of a girl in the audience, her voice pitched above the roar of the bar and the clink of glasses — and she laughed. Here she was, missing this amazing performance, three great artists at their peak. Yet after you listened to the song twenty times or so, it didn’t seem like an interruption. The girl’s careless, giddy, snockered giggle fixed to the moment, and then she was indispensable, too — practically a member of the band.

As a kid, I liked to think about how someday the girl on the record would play that cut for her boyfriend or husband or her own kids even, and they wouldn’t believe it was her chattering away ten or fifteen or thirty years before, until they recognized that laugh.

I imagined something else, too.

No, I knew.

I saw myself, someday, playing "I Loves You, Porgy" for some girl I hadn’t met yet. We’d be lying together in bed, done with whatever it was that people do, and it’d be raining outside, but warm where we were still touching. Near the bed there would be a bottle of something, probably Lancer’s. We’d be trading sips from the same glass and listening, bobbing our heads in time tothe swish of Motian’s brushes. And she would get it. Everynote. Definitely. So would I.

Longing never ends.

From Lunch Bucket Paradise:  A True-Life Novel by Fred Setterberg
http://heydaybooks.com/book/lunch-bucket-paradise/

Headline image: Paul Motian (Philadelphia, 1931 – New York, 2011)

Fred Setterberg is the author of The Roads Taken: Travels Through America’s Literary Landscapes and the co-author with Lonny Shavelson of Under the Dragon: California’s New Culture.  He last wrote on New Orleans Jazz: before and after Katrina for Culturekiosque



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