Thoughts on two records featuring the compositions, but not the playing, of two of the most distinctive instrumentalist-composers of the past fifty (or so) years:
Charlie Haden w/ Don Cherry & Ed Blackwell - Montreal Tapes
I've been gradually acquiring Haden's Montreal Tapes albums as I come across them. There are ten or so in all, recorded live in '89 and each featuring Haden with a different lineup. This is one of the best I've heard so far and one of the best of the "Ornette without Ornette" genre that is best exemplified by Old & New Dreams. This is essentially that group minus Dewey Redman, or to think of it another way, the Ornette Coleman Quartet of This Is Our Music minus Ornette. Ornette's music tends to bring out a special dimension in Haden's playing, and his sound is very much large and in-charge on this set, which is made up of six Ornette tunes and two from Cherry. There's a wonderful moment in "Lonely Woman" when Haden starts playing the old folk outlaw song "John Hardy" ("...was a desperate little man / carried two guns every day"), flaunting the freedom available in Ornette's music, which is large enough and open enough to contain the folk and country Haden grew up with. And what really makes this passage work is the way Blackwell comes in to simply but perfectly support Haden's line. (Apparently, "John Hardy" also pops up on the Ornette Reunion 1990 live set, which I intend to get soon.) I tend to enjoy Don Cherry most when he's playing Ornette's music - I love hearing those unison heads and his interactions with Ornette and/or Dewey Redman - but he carries the front line very well here on his own, standing on the powerful yet fluid foundation created by Haden and Blackwell.
I also revisited the Quartet West record Haunted Heart after reading Haden's comments on the passing of drummer Larance Marable on DTM and it was even better than I remembered it - a super-evocative and well-balanced blend of standard ballads, bebop tunes (by Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, and Bud Powell), and originals inspired by classic Hollywood and/or noir. On the ballads, Haden reverses the procedure sometimes used live by the Bandwagon of playing a recording (of Billie Holiday, for example) and then launching into an improvisation based on it. Here, the vintage vocal performances (by Jeri Southern, Jo Stafford, and Billie Holiday) follow and sort of flow seamlessly out of Quartet West's renditions of the tunes. As this is the only one I've heard, I certainly need to catch up with the rest of Quartet West's output.
Motian Sickness - For the Love of Sarah
I mentioned this album in my previous post and have now had the chance to check it out in more depth. Motian Sickness is West Virginia/DC-area drummer Jeff Cosgrove's Paul Motian tribute project, apparently conceived and recorded before but not released until after Motian's passing last year. After the group name, the instrumentation is the first thing that might raise eyebrows - mandolin/viola/bass/drums. While the mood and the approach taken to the compositions is very much in the spirit of their composer - this isn't Pickin' on Paul: A Bluegrass Tribute to Paul Motian - the mandolin does give the music a dimension that isn't present on any Motian recordings I know of. There's no one dominant voice, but the mandolin (played by Jamie Masefield of the stylistically eclectic Jazz Mandolin Project), with its distinct timbre and characteristic tremolo picking technique, is the element that first grabs the ear in this context.
There's some good background on the album in this interview with Cosgrove. One interesting point is that the album was originally supposed to feature fiddle and that violist Mat Maneri was a last-minute sub. As Maneri is a strong and distinctive musical voice and a veteran of a few different Motian groups, I can only imagine that this would've been a very different record without him. Despite the unusual instrumentation and charismatic players, Motian's compositions still exert the strongest influence on the overall sound - it seems that however they're arranged, they bring their own inescapable mood, evoking sometimes nameless emotions. "Dance", which originally appeared on an ECM trio record with David Izenzon and Charles Brackeen, works well here as an opener. Relatively brief and upbeat but a bit thorny, it's a good intro into the Motian sound-world, preceding a plunge into the deeper, darker waters of "Conception Vessel".
Many of the following tunes are ones I associate with Motian's Soul Note era (though he recorded most of them multiple times), and the tracklist reminds me of the depth of Motian's catalogue (and the potential for a Motian Sickness sequel) in that it's full of strong tunes despite the fact that it includes almost none of the ones I might list as my favorites or the ones I'd be most likely to recognize in a few notes (there's no "Abacus", "Etude", "Byablue", "Cathedral Song", "Blue Midnight", "Yahllah", or "Drum Music"). Motian Sickness has already brought me back to the Soul Note records (some of the best and, until the recent box set reissues, perhaps least known of Paul Motian's recording career as a leader) with renewed attention and given me a deeper appreciation of tunes like "The Owl of Cranston" and "The Story of Maryam". Ending with "Trieste" was another good sequencing choice, closing the record with one of Motian's loveliest and most melancholy tunes, highlighted by Maneri's viola.
Cosgrove has, of course, the difficult task of being the drummer on a Paul Motian tribute record, a situation that doesn't exist on recent Motian-themed records by Russ Lossing (solo piano) and Joel Harrison (on guitar with his String Choir). He doesn't seem to be copying Motian's style (which would probably be impossible to pull off convincingly, anyway), but his playing does seem to embrace the more open, free, coloristic side of Motian, with an emphasis on interplay and reaction. The bassist, John Hebert, set himself a similar challenge last year when he assembled a Charles Mingus tribute group at the Stone (one of the best sets of music I saw all year). I don't know if he ever played in any of Motian's bands, but they did play together (here's some video of them with Russ Lossing) and, as seems to be the case in just about any situation, his sound and his ideas play a major role in shaping the music on this album. Insomuch as there's any such thing as a "standard repertoire" anymore, I hope For the Love of Sarah will play a part in cementing Paul Motian's place in it.
[Update: Just noticed that the Bad Plus plus Bill Frisell set from Newport has been posted. Four of five tunes in the set are by Paul Motian. If you've somehow read this post to this point and are not already aware of this set of music, YOU ARE ADVISED TO LISTEN TO IT IMMEDIATELY. Frisell's guitar sounds on this. Oh man.]
I've been reading some older essays on Kyle Gann's blog lately (his pieces on just intonation and historical tunings are by far the clearest explanation of these subjects I've ever seen) which led me to this series on the history of American piano music by pianist-composer "Blue" Gene Tyranny. All of this has had me Googling and YouTubing all sorts of amazing piano works. One new favorite is Lou Harrison's Piano Concerto from the mid-'80s performed by Keith Jarrett.
Next time out, I'll probably be talking recent pop/rock-oriented records and stuff I bought in Chicago (good haul at the Jazz Record Mart).