For the Love of Motian

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Jakob Bro, left, and Joe Lovano lead Once Around The Room, a tribute to Paul Motian.

(Photo: Aquapio Films Ltd.)

The sui generis septet album Once Around The Room (ECM) references the beautiful Paul Motian song “Once Around The Park,” so titled for Motian’s description of his daily 8-mile run around the perimeter of Manhattan’s Central Park.

Co-led by Joe Lovano and Jakob Bro, the date gestated in the early spring of 2021, as Bro, walking with his infant son around Copenhagen, pondered a follow-up to Uma Elmo, an atmospheric, textural trio date with trumpeter-electronics master Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy.

“I’ve admired Joe for as long as can I remember,” Bro said via Zoom from his Copenhagen home, referencing Lovano’s 30-year tenure in the Paul Motian Trio with Bro’s lodestar guitar hero, Bill Frisell. He himself played electric guitar in Motian’s Electric Bebop Band — usually with Ben Monder and Steve Cardenas, as on Garden Of Eden (ECM) — for much of the 2000s, and brought Motian on board with such luminaries as Lee Konitz, Mark Turner and Frisell for The Stars Are All New Songs (Loveland) and Balladeering (Loveland) in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Bro’s only prior bandstand encounter with Lovano transpired in 2009 over four days at a Copenhagen club, although they’d broken bread on several Bro pilgrimages to the Motian-Frisell-Lovano trio’s annual stand at the Village Vanguard.

“I’d been back and forth with Joe about doing something together ever since, and as it was the 10-year anniversary of Paul’s passing, I had the idea to approach him with the idea of celebrating Paul,” Bro said. “When I got back from my walk, I wrote Joe an email, and he was interested.”

For the Copenhagen session, Bro invited three bassists, all Motian alumni: on acoustic, Thomas Morgan and Larry Grenadier, frequent presences in different Bro-led trios in recent years; on electric, Anders Christensen, an old friend who’d toured with Bro in Motian’s band. For the drums, he paired Rossy (who, since joining Bro a few years ago, has been using heavy drumsticks that once belonged to Motian) with Joey Baron, a friend of Lovano’s since the 1970s, who performs on Bro’s ECM albums Streams and Bay Of Rainbows with Morgan on bass. Both are devotees of, as Rossy once put it, Motian’s “total openness of space and, at the same time, the thickest, hugest, best-feeling beat you can have in terms of pulse.”

“Paul had his own feeling,” Lovano said from a Fort Worth hotel room, the morning after performing a commissioned orchestral piece by Douglas Cuomo with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. “He opened up the rhythm and didn’t just play beats. He thought of playing the drums as notes. That deep root is why he played so amazingly through the years. In Paul’s trio with Bill and me, we’d have themes and then create music pretty freely together. That idea became our group’s foundation, and most things I’ve done since then have contained that element. All these cats were informed by that way of playing from listening to us.

“At first the idea was to write music inspired by Paul, but we recorded on Nov. 10, the same day that Paul passed,” he continued. “It turned out to be a tribute after we started to play. We felt we had Paul’s embrace to do what we wanted. I flew to Copenhagen from Paris, where I’d played with Chucho Valdés on part of his Creation Suite, and on the flight I was thinking about how we could start the session. I wrote an orchestration called ‘Sound Creation’ — no written notes, just an order of things, once around the room with the personnel, as we were set up. We spoke it down and then improvised the piece. That set the tone for the day. Especially the way the basses and the drummers communicated and the way Jakob plays — it felt like I was playing with a trio or quartet.”

The question was how seven musicians could convene with no prior rehearsal and achieve a sufficient balance and equilibrium to create some 80 minutes of cogent, cohesive music mostly executed in one take. But they did, then Manfred Eicher, ECM’s proprietor-sound guru, and Bro whittled down the music in post-production to sculpt a vinyl-friendly six-song, 40-minute album.

“Usually, I’m very open in the studio,” Bro said. “I’ll start playing a piece, and hopefully what I’m doing is strong enough for the people to forget whatever anxiety they might have, and start making music and listening. All these musicians are about listening. Twice as many people could have been in the room and it still would have worked without a rehearsal. On this session, there was a lot of sound and a risk of people overlapping if we all played at the same time. It’s because we want the energy to be there. We want the chaotic feel of seven people in the same room playing together at the same time. But then, if people think that’s all we’re doing, they’ll just lay out — and if too many people lay out, it’s going to be silence. So, somebody has to take responsibility and do something.

“Joe’s arrangement was an icebreaker,” Bro added. “He said, ‘Let’s start with me, and then Jakob comes in, and then the drums come in and the drums fade out, and then the bass comes in ... .’ He had ideas for where we would go in and out. That was fun, but also nervewracking. This was the first thing we did, and Joe started defining the key in a way, not telling me which one it was, and I had to come in — with no idea about keys and tonalities — and make some music with him. I feel it turned out beautifully, and I learned so much from doing that. I have so much respect for Joe and the harmonic language he’s created.”

COVID-19 restrictions kept Eicher from attending the session, but he came to Copenhagen for mixing, also viewing Bro’s rehearsals with trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, percussionist Marilyn Mazur and cellist Anja Lechner for a recording made on Bro’s own dime. “Manfred quickly saw that we had too much material, and wasn’t interested in doing a double album,” Bro said. “He’s very intuitive. We pointed out pieces, he really liked one and we mixed it; and then, ‘Let’s do one of Joe’s,’ and we mixed it. Basically, when we’d mixed 40 to 50 minutes, Manfred was satisfied — ‘We have enough music, and we probably also have too much.’ He was doing the sequence while we were mixing.”

The group will reunite in May for six nights at the Village Vanguard, the mise en scene for so much of the back story of Once Around The Room. Bro plans to document the last three nights, so perhaps ECM will revisit the project in a different context.

“It’s too good an opportunity not to record it,” Bro said. “The music will take off in a completely different way. I need that on tape.” DB



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