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Aside from his prowess as a drummer, his restless need to invent on the bandstand and his compassionate embrace of musical partners young and old, famous and not, Paul Motian, who died very early this morning at 80, was a real person. The kind you need to meet and sit with a while to understand. And then you get up and leave, feeling better and wiser in ways you can't yet process. Motian didn't want to meet with me for the July Cultural Conversation piece I wrote about him for The Wall Street Journal back in July. His stalwart and wonderful publicist, Tina Pelikan, finessed my way in. Motian told me up front how unhappy he was with his decision to do another interview. ("What haven't I said yet?") Then, two hours later, I could scarcely get him to stop his soft-spoken, stop-start, painterly flow of words, which were not entirely unlike his drumming.
I don't know if I'll write anything new in commemoration of Motian's life and career. I do know that I'm reflecting on it today, and that I welcome any news of memorial concerts or gatherings. Here's that Journal piece again:
A quarterly magazine takes some time till publication. So here's my piece in the Winter issue of JAZZIZ, inspired by Sonny Rollins and, sort of, by my brother Leslie.
by Larry Blumenfeld
Pull quote: "It was a metaphysical
experience, not a musical experience. You had to be there."
It was the best thing I'd ever done for my older brother Leslie -- a seventh-row seat to Sonny Rollins 80th birthday concert at New York's Beacon Theater in September. Back in the '70s, when I was listening to Billy Joel, Leslie was into modern jazz. I couldn't wrap my head around the music he listened to then -- Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Rollins. A few years later, while he was off studying music at college, I grew to appreciate those LPs enough to steal them before heading off for my sophomore year at Boston University.
Though he earns his living in computers in Jacksonville, Florida, Leslie remains a dedicated reedman, playing on weekends in wine bars and restaurants. (I like him best on tenor sax, Rollins' instrument of choice.) But he had never heard Rollins in person. So with Leslie turning 50 and Rollins turning 80, I figured it was time to get the former in front of the latter. Who knew how many more chances there'd be? I sprung for concert and plane tickets.
Rollins no longer performs in clubs. The Beacon show was his first in New York in three years, making it the sort of hot ticket rare these days in jazz. Rollins was billed with his working quintet, plus trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Christian McBride and "surprise special guests." Since Rollins' last New York concert, at Carnegie Hall, featured him in trio with McBride and drummer Roy Haynes, I suspected Haynes would be among the surprises. At least I hoped so. At Carnegie, Haynes and Rollins had maintained a musical dialogue loose as a barbershop conversation. For all his harmonic genius, Rollins' rhythmic prowess (and an adventurousness grounded in that ability) has been just as elemental to the brilliance of his epic solos. Haynes' driving and utterly organic brand of swing time -- which has anchored music by Louis Armstrong through Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and today's best -- is the perfect complement. I couldn't wait for another taste of that hookup. I happened to interview Haynes for an article about jazz families the day before the Rollins show. He confirmed that he'd be on the date. "And there's someone else, too," he said, eyes agleam. "Not gonna say who, though."
I've been back from Barcelona for more than a week, but it seems like yesterday.
If Barcelona is one of the world's most alluring cities--and it is--its Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival must be counted as one of the world's most distinctive and complete jazz events.
The audacious architectural achievements of Gaudí, the searching experimentalism of early works at the Picasso Museum, and the unexpected culinary inventions (what, for instance, Catalan chef Isma Prados can do with tomatoes, strawberries, and sardines) all figure into a novel context for great and adventurous music, and for concert-going in general. The "tenderness sutras," as he calls them, offered by saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his terrific quartet seemed especially radiant there, and both the intimacy and the ostentation of Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés's music were perfectly matched by his setting, the Palau de Música. Not to mention the graciousness of artistic director Joan Anton Cararach, a former music critic himself, his exceedingly lovely wife, Doan Manfugas, whose deeply felt ideas about music owe to her early training in Havana's finest conservatories, and the suave General Director Tito Ramoneda, whose dream of a cultural event linking his city with both New York and Rio de Janeiro seems just crazy enough to work.
So I'm finally stepping up as a sibling, doing something deep and grand: Flying my older brother Leslie, who happens to play tenor saxophone, to New York so that he can sit tomorrow night in the seventh row of the Beacon Theater, at the feet of Sonny Rollins. The occasion? Leslie's 50th and Sonny' 80th birthdays.
No saxophonist should walk through life without at least once listening in Rollins's presence. Hell, no human should. There is so much spiritual presence embedded in Rollins's sound, so much intellectual wonder invested in how he treats a melody, so much musical history referenced in his solos, and yet more--philosophy, politics, and a sense of social purpose--reflected in simply how he conducts himself on and off the stage.
Here's an interview I did with Rollins for The Village Voice, during which we dealt mostly with extra-musical affairs, including for instance why music is an appropriate response to terror. I'd also suggest this lovely piece, full of reminiscences of the Harlem in which Rollins grew up, by my colleague Marc Myers in The Wall Street Journal.
A woman's leg extends from a limousine. A man looks though a telescope on a tripod in the middle of Sixth Avenue. Jazz legend Thelonious Monk leans back from his piano bench-arms extended, fingers on keys, cigarette dangling from lips--as arranger-composer Hall Overton stands beside seated musicians, sheet music on their stands.
The original black-and white photography of W. Eugene Smith provided both inchoate pleasures and precise documentation in "The Jazz Loft Project," a recent exhibition at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts. We'll never know if that woman was stepping in or out, or what that telescope revealed. But some of these images clarify moments in jazz history, specifically Monk's collaboration with Overton for a landmark 1959 big-band concert at Town Hall: When the photos are paired with excerpts of Smith's reel-to-reel recordings (as they were at the exhibit's listening stations), we can essentially see and hear Monk and Overton at work.
Complete though it seemed, the exhibition--original prints, sound recordings, film footage and personal artifacts--contained but a fraction of the contents from Smith's former home, known for a decade beginning in the mid-1950s as "the jazz loft." Nothing today about that nondescript building at 821 Sixth Ave., off 28th Street, provides clues to its past. But at the library one could see the loft through the eyes and ears of Smith, who in 1957 left the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., for that dilapidated, five-story building. By that point, Smith, who died in 1978, was a celebrated photojournalist; the building, a known congregation point for jazz musicians at all hours owing to the presence of its others residents (Overton, pianist Dick Cary, and painter David X. Young) and its four available pianos. Addicted to alcohol and amphetamines, Smith was also an obsessive regarding work. Eventually, he fixated on the loft itself: the sights within, and from his fourth-floor window, captured in some 40,000 images; and the sounds, preserved on more than 4,000 hours of reel-to-reel tape, carried by microphones wired throughout the building.
"He was a case," recalled drummer Ronnie Free, who lived for a time in Smith's loft, in one of the oral-history videos on display at the library. "Always working."
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