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The 'Ex-Jazz Lover' In Motian

Every relationship has its haunts, the places where bonds are forged over intimate conversation or a shared drink, where people are both enlivened by their surroundings and enough at ease to feel like their best selves. In my relationship with jazz, the most significant of those places has been the Village Vanguard.

I did an NPR story on the Vanguard's 75th anniversary some time ago and was invited to attend the Monday night party celebrating the occasion. On what should have been a happy event, I left feeling rather wistful and maybe even a bit resigned about jazz's future — more precisely, before you label me yet another doomsday prophet, its prospects as represented by the people mingling around the room on that particular evening. I wasn't sure I wanted to admit it to myself, let alone commit my thoughts to print.

I beat back those feelings and headed to the club on Tuesday night to hear Paul Motian, whom I'd interviewed for the story. He recently played a week at the club with Jason Moran on piano and Greg Osby on alto, 50 some-odd years after Motian's first appearances at the club with the legendary pianist Bill Evans. He's also celebrating the release of a new CD recorded live at the Vanguard titled Lost in a Dream (ECM).

The drummer is 79 years old, but preternaturally spry, and a delightfully hard-boiled New Yorker if ever there was one. The activity of drumming probably enables Motian to stay in good shape physically, but I'd put my money on a healthy brand of local cynicism for keeping him young at heart.

Funny thing is that he sounds like the youngest player in that trio. There's none of his exterior toughness in this music. Motian is actually kind of a softie: verging on tender, unspoiled.

Some of his originals have angular melodies and what feel like precariously balanced strata of rhythm, the kind that keep you wondering, 'How is this going to work itself out?' But even still, each voice in the trio bends through an open weave, especially during the ballads they played: "Lost in a Dream," the Monk tune "Ruby My Dear, and "Be Careful It's My Heart." Osby and Moran end up playing far more subtly and restrained than in their own ensembles. And Motian fills up the space, even when he's doing something as simple as keeping time on the ride cymbal. (Or, maybe, it's the spareness of such textures that creates his sense of expansiveness?)

Only one tidbit from my 20-minute interview with him made it into the final Vanguard story, the rest falling among the many casualties in the world of five-minute radio pieces. But an anecdote he shared about the Vanguard's original proprietor Max Gordon charmed me enough to want to give it a home here:

I remember the first time I tried to get a gig there with my own band. I had a quintet at the time and a recording on ECM. I took it down to the Vanguard to have Max Gordon listen to it.

And he was so great. He sat down in the kitchen, put on the cassette, and put on the headphones. He sat in his chair and he listened to that whole record. That's almost an hour. Tells you what kind of person he was, right?

After all of that — he didn't give me the gig. He said, 'This is great music, Paul. This is really, really good. Now, where could we put this band?'

Paul's take on this story is a lesson to club owners. In my mind, it's as much a lesson for musicians.


Lara Pellegrinelli calls herself the "ex-jazz lover" because of this. Her columns for ABS are collected here.


Related At NPR Music: The Vanguard turns 75. And here's a track from that new Paul Motian trio record. And by the way, NPR Music and WBGO record live from the Vanguard every month.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.