Jenny Scheinman, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade @ The Village Vanguard

Well, it was quite a week for live music.  There are a lot of things that can be substituted or forgotten.  If you wanted, you could get away with never speaking another word to another human being.  Never read an actual bound book.  Forget seeing a movie in a theater.  But there is no substitute for live music.

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The week came to an end with Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, and Jenny Scheinman at The Village Vanguard.  Well, it was Thursday, but who’s counting.  The Vanguard is a NY institution, that looks nearly exactly as it did in its heyday.  Every legend of jazz has played there, and the more spiritual among us like to imagine that there is a little spirit of those left behind.

It was a fitting week to visit, as Paul Motian had just passed away, the Vanguard was his home for the last few years, and Frisell was a member of his long running trio with Joe Lovano (who else would have the balls to have a trio with sax, drums, and guitar??)

One of my favorite shows of all time was the Brian Blade Fellowship at this venue a few years back.  I couldn’t see a thing (which happens if you sit anywhere except the very front) but it made no difference.  Everyone in the venue was straining their necks to see what Blade was up to behind the vast array of musicians on that tiny stage.  This evening was a little easier, there were only 2 other up there.

The set was less experimental than you would imagine.  Frisell had his pedal board, some looping devices, probably a magic pedal that allows him to play a Statocaster at the Village Vanguard and not look ridiculous doing so…and probably not a Boss Metal Zone.  Scheinman was leading the band, playing most of the melody, but in truth, you can’t have Brian Blade on a stage and expect him not to be the focus.

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It’s not even through showmanship or excessive display of chops.  Blade could probably play just a ride cymbal with a broomstick and most of us would have been captivated.  The man has something most do not.  It goes beyond time.  Its not speed, or some Dave Weckl-esque shit, he’s just operating on a level different from the rest of us.  I commented to my friend that this is what Elvin Jones must have sounded like at the Vanguard.  You can see everything he’s doing – he’s using the same tools available to anyone else.  But he’s just extracting something different from them.  He’s from New Orleans, let’s call it Voodoo.

This week it will continue, at a much more relaxed pace, with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, also Peter Lugers steak, and while that is not music, it is certainly worth noting.

Paul Motian, RIP

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Yep, there goes another one.

Paul Motian was a fantastic drummer. Most famous for his role in the Bill Evans Trio, played with Keith Jarrett, and probably every other person under the sun.

Once at my first job after school, I was digitizing ancient cassettes for a jazz archive. Interviews with jazz legends, and other obscure characters – Mario Bauza, Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman, all sorts. I would work strange hours whenever the studio was vacant, but on this day, I was working a rare daytime shift while the main engineer was out of town. A journalist was doing interviews in a separate studio, and the subjects would occasionally wait on the couch as I worked. I had heard Paul Motian was coming in, I was kind of psyched just to maybe give him a passing hi five.

About an hour before he was supposed to arrive, the doorbell rang. No one else was in the studio, I felt a little uneasy. I was 22, here’s one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, Oh Hey! It was a terrible snow storm, late December, he came in wearing giant rainboots. “you never know how long the trains take, I wanted to be on time!” Well, from that moment on, he was kosher with me. Tell that to every friend I have gone to dinner with, if I am not there on time, call the search party.

He sat on the couch and just hung out. Casual as could be. Luckily, I had an easy conversation starter – He knew nearly all of the interview subjects on these rapidly decaying cassettes. He would just come right out with these fantastic stories…
“So Max Roach and Charlie Parker were sitting at Max’s house shooting up, Max’s mom suddenly comes in, so bird ditches the junk and picks up a bible! She goes ‘why can’t you be more like charlie!!”

I asked him about Elvin Jones, who had passed about a year before, they lived up in the same neighborhood. I had just acquired Elvin’s kick drum through his wife, but I was hesitant to say so, so I just mentioned I had met her….
“Keiko! Man, She used to break down his drum kit for him! One time I saw him over in europe and said ‘Elvin! Where can I get a girl like that!?’ ‘You can’t, Man! I got the last one!”

He talked about going to the Half Note one night to see Coltrane, and Elvin hadn’t shown up yet. Apparently, he was in Jail… “So I played with him. I really miss John, he was such a gentle guy” How many people on earth can say a sentence like that? How many could refer to Coltrane as John. Not many.

He saw there was a tape of an interview with Kenny Clarke, one of the originators of the jazz drumming style we all know today. “Hey Steve, how can I get a copy of that?? Kenny was a friend of mine. I’d love to hear him” I burnt an extra, he was so psyched. I have rarely felt cooler than I had that day. I went to see him at the Village Vanguard a few weeks later, and got to talk to him for a sec “Hey, I was just telling Sue Mingus about those interviews! Do you think I could get a copy of that one?? I said, sure, I could mail him one. He wrote his address down in a notebook. I never got to mail it to him, but the address is written in the last page of a rapidly crumpling moleskine. I’ll pull it out of a drawer in 20 years, and feel the jazz greatness emanate from that page.

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There was a great piece on him in the NY Times a few years ago, painting a picture of this truly original character. He wouldn’t leave Manhattan in his later years, not even to go to Brooklyn.

The last show I saw Motian perform was at the Vanguard, with Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus.  Motian seemed so relaxed behind the kit.  No need to show off, no need for the spotlight, just playing what was absolutely necessary.  One ballad they performed (I have no idea of the name) might have been one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.  So right now, in tribute to Motian, I’m going to imagine this nameless and mysterious ballad as a sendoff.  Let’s all go out and see some live music as a tribute.