Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part Two - All-Vanguard Edition

Paul Motian Trio, Trio 2000+2, and MJQ Tribute at the Village Vanguard
After seeing the quintet with Bill McHenry that I wrote about here, I completed my plan to catch a set from each week of Paul Motian's three-week Vanguard stand back in February and March, but I'm only now catching up with the recaps. Week two's trio with Ethan Iverson and Larry Grenadier focused mostly on standards (with one or two Iverson compositions - unexpectedly, I don't think I heard any of Motian's), at least in the set I saw. While any Motian-led group takes on his musical personality to a certain (usually large) extent, this trio seemed to have plenty of room for each player's personality to emerge and shape the overall sound. Grenadier in particular shone on Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time", really digging in and bringing the blues to the fore. Iverson's deconstructive (for lack of a better word - that doesn't quite describe it) approach to "All The Things You Are" made the trio's version fresh and engrossing (they also played one of the other tunes in competition for the title of ultimate jazz warhorse, "Body and Soul"). The trio's fine version of Michel Legrand's "The Windmills of Your Mind" (famously recorded by Dusty Springfield on Dusty in Memphis and also the title track of Motian's forthcoming album with Petra Haden and Bill Frisell) brought out the Spanish feel lurking in that tune to good effect (making it easy to imagine that the windmills in question were Quixote's).

The final week was a two-bass lineup of Motian's Trio 2000+2 (I think most of the previous 2000+2 iterations have featured two saxes instead, but Motian has used two basses before). I was particularly looking forward to seeing pianist Masabumi Kikuchi in person after admiring his work with Motian on record. He did not disappoint. Kikuchi blows the ugly/pretty dichotomy apart like few pianists outside of Monk, whether moaning through a particularly beautiful piece of ballad melody or weaving intricate but dissonant lines with interlaced hands. I don't find Kikuchi's vocalizations particularly distracting (I prefer them, if that's the right word, to Keith Jarrett's), but there did seem to be an uncomfortable vibe in the audience. One idiot actually shouted "thank God!" when the set ended, atypical behavior for a club where respectful (even worshipful) audiences are the norm. The combo of Kikuchi and Motian, two idiosyncratic but complimentary masters, was a potent mix producing at-times "difficult" music. The fact that the weird stuff - the dissonances and counterintuitive rhythmic accents - was not taking place at the high volumes and fast tempos associated with stereotypical in-your-face free jazz may have actually made this music more unsettling and expectation-confounding. As Iverson recently wrote (quoting a letter in response to criticism of a Motian appearance at Jazz at Lincoln Center some years ago), “Motian can sit back and relax, knowing that his deeply swinging yet modernist style can still upset squares, even though he has been playing exactly the same way for at least 40 years!” The set included Motian tunes "Standard Time", "Olivia's Dream", and a meatier-than-usual, set closing "Drum Music" with some solo space for saxophonist Loren Stillman. The highlight for me was a gorgeous rendition of Lionel Hampton's "Midnight Sun" that showcased (and here I risk sounding like a beer commercial) the mountain stream-like clarity Kikuchi is able to bring to a ballad. "Midnight Sun" is also one of the highlights of Vol.5 of Motian's On Broadway series (check out the heavy duty Johnny Mercer lyrics, rendered here by Ella Fitzgerald).

More recently, Motian was back at the Vanguard with his tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, featuring a group with the MJQ lineup of vibes-piano-bass-drums. I'll admit to not knowing the MJQ's music very well beyond a few of their most famous tunes, and I haven't listened to much vibes outside of some things with Bobby Hutcherson, but I found this group totally compelling. I can't believe I wasn't previously familiar with Steve Nelson (on vibes), because he's thrillingly good. He's got something of a Monk-ish approach, clearly "in the tradition", rooted in the blues, but also very much in the moment, engaged, alert, open and willing to explore all possibilities. The freshness and freedom in Nelson's playing fit nicely with Motian, whose playing at certain points in the set could've served as a litmus test for potential fans. If you didn't like what he was doing at those moments (one of which, if memory serves, was on "Bags Groove") - respectful of the tune, swinging, and yet totally individual and cliche-free - you'd never get into him. The set mixed MJQ material with some of Motian's tunes, including a really nice "Abacus". I'm always happy to hear that one, and I particularly liked pianist Craig Taborn's approach to it. Being in almost the opposite corner of the room from Taborn, I couldn't see or hear him quite as well as I would've liked, though he had at least a couple head-turning solos and seemed to find interesting things to do in both the relatively traditional structures of the MJQ stuff and the more open spaces of the Motian tunes. I don't know how much Taborn and Motian have played together before this week, but I'd like to hear more. Bassist Thomas Morgan is something of a Motian veteran at this point, playing in many recent groups (including the aforementioned Trio 2000+2, along with Ben Street), and he seems totally at ease with what I imagine must be the unique requirements of playing bass alongside Paul Motian.

Check out a couple of excellent posts from Ted Panken on Nelson and Motian.

Bill Frisell Quartet at the Village Vanguard
I only caught one set of Frisell's two-week Vanguard run, during the second week with his frequent collaborators Kenny Wollesen, Tony Scherr, and Ron Miles. I wish I had made some notes at the time, as I've probably forgotten or may be misremembering some of the tunes (my excuse: it was my birthday), but I do recall that it was a fun, loose set that found Frisell seemingly in the mood to play the blues, including the "St. Louis Blues" and "Lovesick Blues" (I think there may have been a blues-based original in the set, too). For me, Wollesen revealed the affinities between the Handy and Williams tunes as he played the type of beat on the "I'm in love, I'm in love..." part of "Lovesick Blues" that I associate with the "St. Louis woman..." part of "St. Louis Blues" (all of which would make more sense if I knew what to call that particular beat). Frisell honored a shouted request for acoustic guitar with an encore of "Moon River" into "Misterioso". Scherr also switched to acoustic guitar and played some slide after jokingly turning the guitar upside down during Frisell's intricately improvised intro as if to say "what do you expect me to do with that?". Of all of Frisell's groups, this may be the one he seems most comfortable and casual with, and probably the one he's able to take in the most different directions (and I think he's said as much himself in interviews). So many of the avenues and aspects of music that I love are embodied in Bill Frisell - I never get tired of him.

I'm slowly catching up with these live music reports. Part Three coming soon...

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