Saturday, September 10, 2011

Paul Motian & Friends: Masters of Jazz on a Simple Line

Masters of Jazz on a Simple Line
John Shand for the Sydney Morning Herald
September 10, 2011

During the acclaimed documentary Sounds and Silence, composer Arvo Part exhorts a choir to "Just sing. Not like in a concert hall or on a stage. Simply sing." That is what Petra Haden does on this latest masterwork from drummer Paul Motian: produce the most guileless, unaffected singing imaginable. It is as if someone has said to her, "Don't worry about trying to be a jazz singer. Just sing."

This album is further proof of the heights that music can reach when all concerns of style and prowess are discarded. More than any improvising musician alive, Motian is brave and instinctive enough to dispense with technical peripheries and just play what the music demands, moment by moment.

Here he surrounds Haden with Bill Frisell's guitar and Thomas Morgan's bass, on material including standards, Motian compositions and a version of Tennessee Waltz. The latter is not such a big surprise, given that Haden is the daughter of master-bassist (and long-term Motian collaborator) Charlie Haden and their whole family is steeped in country music.

Her voice has a little-girl fragility and when she turns it up on The Windmills of Your Mind the effect is like a dream. The song is delivered at a tempo so slow that it is barely in motion, allowing the full weight of the gorgeous lyric to be absorbed. She reaches inside the sultriness of Lover Man and brings its physical warmth to life. Easy Living becomes as blithe as a stroll through A. A. Milne's Hundred-Acre Wood, and for the Gershwins' flirtatious I've Got a Crush on You she becomes coquettish, buoyed just by the gentle lapping of Frisell's guitar.

I Loves You Porgy has no trace of angst. Rather it is a celebration of the melody, as is If I Could Be with You, which has an old-world coyness and gentility. I Remember You is so slow it is as though the thoughts of the lyric are gradually unfolding in real time in her mind.

Haden's delivery could seem so naive as to be lame, did it not dovetail perfectly with the contexts. Motian's sparseness does not always equate with simplicity, as he lays rubato figures against a pulse that sometimes is held only by Haden's floating voice. He has said he has retreated from the need to push boundaries but he does it anyway in his instinctive reaction to the music.

Frisell shares Motian's ability to offer the most ingenuous response to a musical situation. There is not a guitar solo in the traditional sense on the album, yet Frisell's imprint is everywhere, whether in playing Motian's musical alter ego or in easing Haden's course. He slides into the country strains of Tennessee Waltz, this being his current area of passion. And he makes it all glisten with the honesty of one who knows no other musical path than candour.

Morgan is a revelation. It would be easy for a bassist to mess up the chemistry between Motian and Frisell but he actually thickens it. His sound is round and reassuring against the fragility of the singing. The bass is also the main source of any little solos and they are glorious affairs in which plump or keening notes hang in the air amid the rustle of drums and ripple of guitar.

No comments: