3 Doubles: Ben Monder, Max Roach, Sun Ra

In my kitchen at home, just by chance, I’ve been listening to 3 double albums. They are Sun Ra- The Singles, Max Roach- To The Max, and Ben Monder- Day by Day. These three double albums each contain a world within them, different from each other but equally perspicuous.


Sun Ra- The Singles (Evidence, 1996)

Comprised of standards, doo-wop, R&B, original big band and small group jazz, blues, holiday music, chants, jams, spoken word, comedy, electric blues, two songs about Batman, musical theater, electronic dance music, and free improvisations, Sun Ra- The Singles is a double album culled from home recordings, live recordings, and studio recordings over a nearly 30-year period. But instead of feeling unfocused or random, there’s a strong, organic connection between the different sounds, styles, and eras. You might even say Sun Ra was investigating the intersectionality of these styles, on a shoestring budget, starting in 1956.

It’s a sound world that will seem very familiar to 21st century musicians. In fact, listening the other day, it occurred to me that I subconsciously began re-arranging my musical life so that I could encounter all the sounds on this album after I heard it in 2014.

I was working with Stew, the great songwriter, performer, and playwright, on a new musical in Oregon. He would mention Sun Ra as an influence and model nearly every day, it seemed. He’d ask us to do or play some outlandish thing in rehearsal, we’d balk, then he’d tell us that he saw Sun Ra do something like it. Once, he asked me to play violin on a song. I told him I’d never even held a violin, and he said that he’d seen every musician in Sun Ra’s band play drums, there was no way they were all drummers, and can a violin really be so far from a drum?

I’d never thought much of Sun Ra’s music, the little that I heard, but I was curious. One day I asked Stew if there was a Sun Ra record he thought I should hear. He thought for a moment and then replied “The Singles- that’s such a beautiful record.” At Amoeba in San Francisco later that month, I picked it up.

The music is so wide-ranging, and at points so amateurishly played and recorded, that I was confused and then beguiled. In John Szwed’s essential-reading Sun Ra biography, he quotes Sun Ra at a rehearsal circa 1970:

“If you sound like you’re wrong, people will be interested. You don’t ever hear people say ‘let’s go hear that band, they play everything right’. But if you play some things wrong, they say, ‘that band plays wrong, let’s go see them’.”

A shrewd observation. There’s a lot of that on The Singles. But once I adjusted my ear to what Sonny and the band were saying, I had a new friend.

Take the version of “Enlightenment” with Sonny on clavinet, June Tyson on vocals, and John Gilmore on drums and vocals. The singing is out of tune, Gilmore’s drumming is not what his saxophone playing is, and Sonny seems to forget how the song goes at points. It’s recorded in their Philadelphia home, but it doesn’t sound like they were intending to make a single, or even to make music that would be heard more than once. It sounds like a family singing a song they all know and love. It sounds like folk music.

Why was a sub-standard recording of a flawed performance released? I certainly couldn’t say, but one thought I had was that this is what most music sounds like, and this is how most recordings sound. Most music-making is not done by professional musicians, and most people that operate recording gear are not professionals. So here’s an utter commonplace, an everyday, maybe even a vulgar sound. Listening over and over, I discovered the great beauty and dignity in this sound.

I’m not exaggerating to say that after repeated and sustained exposure to Sun Ra and this album in particular, all music now sounds slightly different and better to me


Max Roach- To The Max! (Blue Moon/Max Roach Productions, 1992)

I like this album because of the pun.

Max Roach occupies a curious spot in the cosmos of many drummers my age. He’s respected and revered, but I’ve heard people say “He doesn’t swing”, “I don’t like his sound”, etc. etc. By “people” I mean mostly white guys, from say 30-45 years old, and most of us never saw him play, and we definitely never hung out with him.

Every great older drummer holds him in the highest regard. I recently spoke to Billy Hart on the phone about Max and he asked how many days I had to talk! Mel Lewis in the Loren Schoenberg radio interviews never shies away from any criticism or praise, but you can hear the fondness in his voice when Schoenberg plays him “Ko-Ko”. “Now that was silky smooth!” says Mel. And so on.

But we- and I mean me- were maybe a little perplexed by Max. I have some of the 80s CD issues of the Clifford Brown albums and his high, bright sound was not well-served by early digital mastering.

A few years ago I began investigating all of Max’s duo encounters- I should try to write about that stuff- Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Dollar Brand. I haven’t heard the Connie Crothers duo, and the Clark Terry duet is obviously not Max at his best. (He’d had a stroke and we’re lucky that we could even hear him play at that point.)

Eventually I got very into the video of Max’s band at Blues Alley in 1985, and was curious about the double-CD To The Max! This album was fairly well-distributed, I guess, because I saw it at the New Hartford, NY record stores in the mall in the early 90s. So at another trip to Amoeba, last year, I was finally grown-up enough to get my hands on it.

To The Max! is a summary of everything he’d achieved as a musician. There’s jazz quintet plus choir, jazz quintet plus string quartet, percussion ensemble (M’Boom), jazz quartet, and solo drumset.

Leading off the album is a long, monotonous, hypnotic, dull, and thrilling piece called “Ghost Dance” that seems to be attempting to synthesize Coltrane’s modal language, African Amercian drumming and improvisation, 4/4 swing, gospel music, and Native American imagery and history. The recorded sound is bright and shiny- it really sounds like a CD- and doesn’t serve the piece terribly well. The bass sound is particularly galling. I think it’s a stick bass, one of those standup electric things, no doubt a beautiful instrument at the right time and place, but here mixed so upfront as to be distracting, a further hindrance I’m afraid.

Also, Max seems to have overdubbed a not-terribly-steady cymbal and bass drum playing four quarter notes through the jazz movements, and then mixed them as loud or louder than the horns and voices! With a gospel-style choir of singers chanting “He turned into a moose/he turned into a moose”…. And after the first movement, you hear a bomb detonate.

Yet I give it up for Max, the piece, the band, and the recording. If Bud Powell or Charlie Parker had lived into the 90s, would they have made such uncompromising, challenging music? He’s clearly saying something, though I’m hesitant to say exactly what he’s saying. He’s certainly making connections between cultures and sounds (African American and Native American, drums and voice, modal improvisation and percussion ensemble) that only now are beginning to be (widely) understood.

Max was an influence for all time because he demonstrated with his life that a drummer was a musician and an artist. He showed, in his music and in his career, that jazz was a force for social change- Freedom Now Suite, the duet Dollar Brand, It’s Time, etc. He demonstrated that jazz was a world music, that jazz could travel across the globe and communicate with musicians and listeners of all backgrounds. And he embodied jazz as a single thread of experience, beyond styles, camps, scenes, and mutually-opposed movements. He was a unifier and a teacher. To The Max! is a late-in-life update on the lifelong mission. Check it out.

day after day.jpg

Ben Monder- Day After Day (Sunnyside, 2019)

Ben Monder got out front early. His 90s albums with Jim Black still define the modern guitar sound. Prepping for this post I listened to Flux from 1995, and felt lucky to be involved in music.

His latest album is Day After Day, on Sunnyside. Matt Pavolka told me that NPR did a big thing about this album, I saw an article in JazzTimes about it, but going to gigs and talking about records with friends and colleagues, few have heard this album and several didn’t even know it existed. So, I wanted to give it a tiny spotlight.

There’s lots I don’t know. I didn’t know “Day After Day” was a Badfinger song or that it was a huge hit in 1971. (The most I knew about Badfinger was that a Beatle or two signed them to Apple Records in 1969.) I didn’t know Ben was such a serious student of pop music.

Disc one is a quiet, meditative look at songs by Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, three standards (My One and Only Love, Never Let Me Go, and Emily), and a piece by Messiaen, performed solo. Ben seems to be playing his arrangements of these songs. I saw him play most of this music at Ibeam a few weeks ago, and he stopped playing at one point in the middle of a song because he forgot the next part, or something; I certainly couldn’t hear any mistakes or errors, or interrupted flow, or anything like that!

I’m not too surprised to hear a jazz musician play Messiaen, Bacharach, and Mancini, and Ben has truly re-imagined these songs. Check his “Windows Of The World” and hear the news today, oh boy.

On disc 2 the focus shifts. Jimmy Webb and Glenn Campbell, Bread, Fleetwood Mac, the Carpenters, “Goldfinger” and Badfinger are not typical choices for improvising instrumentalists.

I was surprised by these song choices. Bravo for 70s AM radio! Or was it FM by this time? There was more beauty there then I knew. (Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden playing “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”.)

Matt Brewer and Ted Poor join on bass and drums, and I noticed that they seem to play a supportive role. It put me in mind of Leo Kotke, the “Wrecking Crew” sound of LA in the 60s, Allan Holdsworth, Joe Satriani; basically the long tradition of guitar trios where the focus is on supporting the guitarist and the composition, instead of engaging in three-way conversation and simultaneous improvisation (which, to be sure, they sometimes do, or at least imply).

I like how Ben lets the music speak. Even at his most outgoing- like the quasi-metal sound of “Goldfinger”- there is a quietness, a stillness to his music. He seems to embody a contemporary trend away from outsized egos and macho megalomaniacs who dominate their musicians and audiences with their creative and destructive charisma- the tradition Sun Ra and Max Roach were coming from. This is inward looking music, maybe even autobiographical. But it’s not solipsistic, narcissistic, or ego-driven. It’s meditative, quiet, beautiful, wholistic, and inspiring.

Max Roach put the world on a drumset. Sun Ra said the jazz big band WAS the world. Ben Monder shares what he sees in the world through the guitar. For some reason the double album format fits these dissimilar artists well. Maybe they’re not dissimilar.

Onward and upward!

Short Story: Get Your Coat And Grab Your Hat


On Thursday, Feb 25th, 2016, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Joe Thaler’s eyes opened, or half-opened, at 9:42 AM. Not all that late actually, seeing that last night he was the guest at the jam session at Soda Bar on Vanderbilt and had stayed out (according to his Uber app) until 2:15 AM. He’d played a set with the regular house rhythm section, then he hung out; drinking, sitting in occasionally, talking to the cats, being a part of the night. At 32 years old, he was two to ten years older than almost everyone at the session. But Joe was ok with that. What he was less ok with was the mild-to-medium headache he had, due, obviously, to, let’s see, one, actually two beers, and then, huh, tequila, two tequila shots, plus another beer, and then one last beer, over the course of about 5 hours, maybe less, plus food…..

And there was the mental fatigue. Underneath all the laughter and friendship of the musicians sitting in and hanging out was a wildly negative undercurrent stemming from chronic musical unemployment, under-employment, frustrated hopes, dashed dreams, or dreams diverted. It all came out in the music and the hanging, the talking. Joe had an exhausting tendency to take it all on himself, and echoes of the conversations bounced around his head. Out of bed, jeans on, t shirt and hoodie on, socks unnecessary, into the kitchen he went.

Bean grinder, water in the tea kettle, two eggs, toast, butter, plate, eggshells, French press, seat at table, quick trip to the bathroom for some nature and ibuprofen, seated again, food, news on phone, food, conclusion. He sat and thought, ruminated actually. What was last night all about? He had spent so much energy, and for what? It had been fun, but now he felt lousy, he’d spent more on booze, food, and a cab than he’d made on the gig, and whatever it was he wanted to achieve musically, it wasn’t at all clear that last night was helping him achieve it.

To the keyboard he went, experiencing the subtle, gooey high of an ibuprofenly receding headache. He played a D major chord and improvised around in that key for a few minutes. About an hour later, he had four lines of staff paper containing something like a melody, something like the beginning of a brand new tune.

Joe was delighted, if still hungover. The melody (it was only a melody) had no fixed identity, no future, no past. It was a captured moment, as innocent as a litter of puppies, with about as much utility.

With the ghosts of the melody still in his head, and in a slight euphoria mixed with creeping anxiety about his career and the after-school saxophone lessons he had to give later that afternoon, he grabbed his laptop and went to the kitchen to send emails and stay in touch with the world.

He wrote to the booker at Cornelia St Cafe, he sent an email to the owner of Barbes, he agreed to a gig with the Loser’s Lounge, he looked to see who was playing where, felt the up-and-down of jealousy and envy and resignation, seeing all the cool gigs happening that he wasn’t a part of, looked at Facebook for 10 minutes before waves of revulsion overwhelmed him, and finished his half-hour of “work” by watching a video of Illinois Jacquet playing with Jo Jones and Milt Buckner playing “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”, in Paris in 1975.

Watching the video of those men, hearing their music, Joe felt embarrassed- for the smallness of his ambitions, the narrowness of the world he moved in. He was ashamed of his self-pity, the privilege of his daily existential crises. Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones, and Milt Buckner were making joyous music, survivor’s music, living music, and here was Joe Thaler, worrying about his life, worried that he wasn’t yet famous.

The song ended, and Joe looked up from his laptop. He looked at his shabby kitchen- cracked, uneven floor, water damaged ceiling, an oven to be avoided, his roommate’s unread New Yorkers piled up by the microwave. He looked at his dishes, at his tablecloth- he’d played or taught music to get the money to buy those things. In fact it was music, playing it, teaching it, being around it whenever he could that provided what little money he had, and therefore provided him with life. That was something.

At 2:18, that something was pushing him out the door to get to the West Village by 3:30 PM to teach a pile of 10-to-12 year-olds whatever they’d like to learn about whatever woodwind they walked into his room with. He got his coat and grabbed his hat and made his way down the stairs, out the door, on the sidewalk, right turn on 4th Ave, headed to the 53rd St R station, thinking of his family, letting him skip out on lawn mowing and other chores to practice and jam with friends. He thought of his private teacher from childhood and teen years, a serious and generous man, and how Joe hoped to be half the teacher that man was. He thought of Illinois Jacquet, Papa Jo Jones, and Milt Buckner, men he’d never met, whose music had made life different today, and had made his life possible.

He walked down the stairs, slightly out of breath, and the R train screeched into the station. The train chimed, the doors opened. Joe stepped on, and went into the world.

Some notes to the tunes on the Posi-tone album Juxtaposition

Marc Free of Posi-tone Records asked me to compose some notes to the tunes on Juxtaposition, released today, Friday, Feb 2, 2017. I was listening to a lot of Duke Ellington live recordings at the time, and the sound and cadence of Ellington's stage banter seems to have crept into my subconscious. I think these notes make more sense if you imagine Duke Ellington reading them out loud.

Imagine a small village in Tuscany. The church, at the center of town, with the beautiful bells in the tower, lets all the townspeople know the time of day. It’s sundown, the close of day, and as the CHIMES ring, the people stop working and begin all their nighttime activities. We make a Db blues out of this scene.

ST JEROME is the primary author of the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible, which was ‘the Bible’ in the Western world for nearly 1,000 years. Translating the Hebrew, he made a lot of mistakes, which is reflected by the dissonance between the saxophone melody and the piano harmony, and, armed with Latin scripture, the Church was ruthless in becoming a dominant cultural force, which you can hear in the bass line.

HOUSE ON HOXIE RD, WEST EDMESTON, NEW YORK is a portrait of a house where I spent a lot of time as a boy. The people in the house, as you’ll hear, were the best kind of people, as they lived with and laughed through some great sadness, which I hope the melody reflects.

On our title track, JUXTAPOSITION, Chris Speed and Bruce Barth freely improvise together for the first time in their respective careers. It’s a pleasure to hear them find each other, and a double pleasure to join them.

ALTER EGO is James Williams’ best-known composition, and a perfect self-portrait. He was a kind, generous, gentle, funny man, and I miss him dearly. I’d like to think he’d enjoy our rendition, which owes much to Victor Lewis’ version.

Tony Williams’ influence is everywhere on this album, and in music today generally, so it seemed appropriate to include one of his tunes. THIS NIGHT THIS SONG is from his Turn It Over album, which I think is a masterpiece. Maybe now you'll go hear it, if you haven't heard it yet. I simplified the form and added a little more harmony, to help the tune exist in this setting.

I wrote ONE HOUR in exactly that amount of time, for a gig with saxophonist Tony Malaby in 2009. I’ve played it on a lot of shows, with many different musicians, because it’s easy to play.  The melody sounds a lot like Cecil Taylor’s tune “Air”, which I hadn’t heard when I wrote the tune. Probably Cecil time traveled from 1960 to 2009, transformed himself into a grocery bag I carried into my house, stole my tune, and improved it. Oh, there's also a Ron Carter tune called Gypsy, which I heard for the first time in 2014, that is eerily reminiscent of this tune.

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s SOMEWHERE is the most beautiful, meaningful song of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Given the state of our country, and the despicable men governing us, I dedicate this performance to the dispossessed, silent, deprived, and despised humans of the US; to our immigrants, our native people, the brave people of Black Lives Matter, the pioneers for marriage equality and LGBTQ fighters, Syrian refugees, and the animals losing their habitat to climate change (ia result of unfair wealth distribution). I am with you, if I may be, and there’s a place for us. I re-worked the harmony, to make the tune “new” again, out of love.

The list of animals without food and habitat will soon include humans. The chord changes to WARM WINTER are meant to bring to mind the pleasant, unsettling feeling of warmer-than-usual weather, and the melody is the humans struggling to adapt and pretend that everything’s fine.

The year is 1908, the place is a beautiful, upper middle-class street in Prague, and the time is late afternoon, on a weekday. All the kids have finished their studies, and are now practicing their piano lessons. A young boy, 9 years old, bored with his piano practicing, improvises a melody on the piano, in the style of the melodies his grandmother sings. Our music world is deeply HELLENIZED, that is, inherited from the Greeks, and brought up in Europe.

The man comes home, from a good day at work. He is satisfied in his work, but lonely in his life. Night falls, loneliness creeps in, and, wishing to stave off despair but unwilling to debase himself, he consumes- food, drink, entertainment- with no one around. He is a SOLITARY CONSUMER, seen frequently in New York City. The melody and harmony refer to Ellington’s “In My Solitude’.

Though we are serious in our intent, jazz is not a formal, serious music. We let our inner goofiness and irreverence guide our instincts for the few pleasurable minutes we share at the end of this album, in SAY THE SECRET WORD.


Five Awkward Conversations With Paul Motian

Five Awkward Conversations With Paul Motian


Fall 2000, Sweet Basil's, Greenwich Village, NYC, late night. Paul Motian, legendary and beloved jazz drummer, is standing near the back of the club, to the right of the bandstand, with a cymbal bag. His band (The Electric Bebop Band, featuring, as best I remember, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Ben Monder on guitar, Chris Potter and Chris Cheek on tenor sax, with Tony Malaby subbing for Potter later that week, and Jerome Harris on electric bass) has just finished its second or third set. It's a weeknight, the club is mostly empty, and he's wearing a hat. VS, college kid and aspiring jazz drummer, is sitting at a table just to Paul Motian's right. This is the third time VS has heard Paul Motian play live. He loves and admires Paul's playing, is thrilled to have heard him tonight, and has been on the lookout for a chance to have a conversation with him. Fate seems to have given him the opportunity tonight, and he is ready. Both Paul Motian and VS are approximately the same height.

VS: (nervously, tiptoeing, excited):
Mr. Motian?

Paul Motian:(loud, brash, amused):
Hey! Yeah? What do YOU want man?

VS: (thrilled the great man has deigned speak to him)
Well, I was just….wondering……(knees actually knocking together here) if the last piece you played……was called…."Cabala".

Paul Motian: (intrigued but ready to be unimpressed, and speaking very loudly)

VS: (in an annoying tone)
Oh, I thought it was "Cabala" from the Le Voyage album.

Paul Motian: (exact same tone as previous, and practically shouting)

VS: (still pursuing…..what?)
If that's "Drum Music", then what piece is "Cabala"?

Paul Motian: (his voice has not modulated at all)

(Perplexed and aware that this exchange could go on indefinitely, it dawns on VS that a subject change might be in order)

VS: (reaching) Do you ever give drum lessons? (It immediately occurs to VS that this is a dumb question, and his face reflects this knowledge.)

Paul Motian: (now even more amused and somewhat less loud):
NO, no MAN I don't DO that, I don't know WHAT TO TEACH I HATE doing that shit man there was a kid in my building who said he wanted to play the drums and then when I saw HIM AGAIN HE HAD A CLARINET HA HA HA HA HA!!!! A CLARINET!

VS: (Relieved, hanging in there, thinking of something to ask, and being annoying):
Is the trio you have with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell going to play in town anytime soon?

Paul Motian: (now slightly irritated)
NO MAN WE WERE SUPPOSED TO PLAY FOR [period of time] AT [a jazz club in NYC] BUT [name omitted] DOUBLE BOOKED US (now actually yelling) AND WE HAD TO CANCEL MAN THAT PISSES ME OFF! MAN THAT PISSES ME OFF…..

VS: (Eager to end the yelling that his question has brought on. But still being annoying.)
Well, I hope I get to see the trio sometime. Thanks for the music tonight!

Paul Motian: (aroused out of his ire, terse and loud but polite somehow, making eye contact) OK MAN…..YEAH…..


Spring 2001, interior of Iridium, 63rd and Broadway, NYC. Pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian have just finished a long second set. It's another weeknight. It's one of the greatest sets of music I've ever seen.

The music is now over. What more could I want? I know! An awkward conversation with a great artist!

VS: (Still in college, high on the music, and still rather annoying): Hello, Mr. Motian?

Paul Motian: (By himself at the bar, as the club is clearing out. He's quieter, sipping out of a shot glass, satisfied, greeting VS like he knows him.) Hey man, what's happening?

VS: (aware that Paul has no idea who he is, but…but……he MUST tell Paul Motian, at all costs, that the music he had JUST PLAYED was very good. What if Paul doesn't know????? VS to the rescue! ) That was a great set. (Relieved that his mission has been successfully completed.)

Paul Motian: (Humoring him.) Alright man, ok. Yeah. (He looks around. He is a benevolent dictator.) You know, I like this club, this is a good club. (Thinking out loud, and this kid seems ok enough) I think I'd like to bring my bebop band in here.

VS: (Yes, I actually said this.) Oh, I don't know if you want to do that.  

Paul Motian: (Reasonably incredulous that a child is saying this to him): WHAT?

VS: (Surprised that he would have to explain such an obvious truth to such a brilliant man.): Well, this is a very expensive….place for me to come….and I think….well, it's not a great place, you know, expensive.

Paul Motian: (Currently impossible for him to care less about this conversation and/or VS's comment): Yeah? Well, I DON'T CARE about that. (He turns his back and continues sipping out of his Scotch glass).

VS: (Slinks and cowers away. A gradual awareness of his titanic silliness creeps over him.)


Summer 2001, Village Vanguard, NYC. The Paul Motian Trio- Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Paul Motian on drums- is playing here for six nights. Two sets Tuesday thru Thursday and Sunday, 3 sets on Friday and Saturday.

Clearly, Paul Motian had not heeded my excellent career advice about avoiding jazz clubs with cover charges over $0, and so I decided to spend my meager earnings on the $15 cover and $10 minimum the Vanguard charged at the time. This was my first time seeing Paul at the Vanguard, and I sat either right in front of the drums in the "general seating" area, or at the bar.

I was working at a grocery store during the day, and I believe I went to 6 sets that week (3 trips to the Vanguard, and I stayed for two sets each time.) I, like everyone else that heard that trio in that room, was in heaven. I remember they opened every 1st set with "Jack Of Clubs", I remember "Body And Soul" every night, and I remember "The Sunflower" every night.

A most great and well-known jazz drummer (W.K.J.D. from here on out) has been giving VS drum lessons for a while. Knowing of and sharing VS's admiration of Paul Motian, W.K.J.D. offers to provide VS with a proper introduction to Paul. Fantasies of blissful conversation flower in VS's underdeveloped imagination. The time has come! Here's W.K.J.D. in attendance at tonight's show at the Vanguard!

W.K.J.D.: Hey Paul!

Paul Motian: Hey [name omitted] WHAT'S HAPPENING MAN ALRIGHT!

W.K.J.D.: Yeah Paul, I can hear you've been practicing.


W.K.J.D.: (smiling and joking) Yeah, you been taking lessons?

Paul Motian: YEAH MAN since I WAS 12 years OLD HA HA HA HA HA


VS: (aside) I don't believe I can contribute to this conversation.

W.K.J.D.: Paul, I want you to meet Vinnie, a student of mine.

VS: Hi Paul. We've met before.

Paul Motian: Oh yeah? I don't remember! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA

W.K.J.D.: Yeah, he's a big fan of yours.

Paul Motian: Really? Why? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA


VS: (awkward)

W.K.J.D.: Hang on, I'll be right back. (In the distance) Hey! Alright.

VS: (awkward)

Paul Motian: (silence)

VS: Have you known W.K.J.D. a long time?

Paul Motian: Yeah, man. You know his father was a [and here Paul told me a very interesting and non-scandalous fact about W.K.J.D.'s father that I'd never heard before and haven't heard since. A quick Wikipedia search resulted in total corroboration of what Paul told me. ]

VS: (Interested and surprised) Oh yeah? (Can we…TALK about this??)

Paul Motian: Yep. (Orders a drink and turns his head in such a way as to immediately informs VS that the conversation is over.)


January 2002. For a college project, VS is presenting transcriptions of Paul Motian's drumming and compositions, a biographical sketch, and recorded examples of his music. Having heard that his phone number was in the NYC phone book, and seeing friends develop mentor/student relationships with musicians they had no prior connection to, VS decides to give Paul Motian a phone call. He cannot see how this could possibly be anything but a good experience for both of them.)

VS: Here he is, Stephen Motian, okay, 212 [beep beep beep] (ring..ring….ring….ring…) [automated voice says I can leave a message] Um, hi Mr. Motian, my name is Vinnie, and we've met, um, we've met a few times, and I've transcribed some of your compositions, and I'm wondering if I can send them to you, and if you would tell me if I've gotten them right or not, um, that would be great. My phone number is [whatever the hell it was]. Ok, thank you. (Hangs up phone, walks away from the phone).

30 seconds later


VS: Hello?


VS: Who's this?

Paul Motian: This is Paul Motian WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT????

VS: (!!!!!) Oh, well, I just transcribed some tunes of yours…..and…..was wondering if I could show them to you to see if they're correct….


VS: Well, it's for a college project, and it would be really great if I could show them to you. (Pouting) Just to see if they're right! If I've got the tunes right!

Paul Motian: NO! I don't wanna see them.

VS: But just to see if they're right.

Paul Motian: Listen, they're simple tunes, they're right, and I don't wanna see them.

VS: (something)

Paul Motian: (hangs up the phone in a decisive manner)

VS: (back to the drawing board)


Summer 2009. I've seen Paul Motian play many times since I wisely stopped trying to talk to him. He had a health scare, stopped traveling- he'll barely go to Brooklyn for a recording session- and plays more frequently in NYC than I ever thought he would. It seems he's at the Vanguard once every six weeks now.

Several of my friends and colleagues begin playing with him- Jacob Sacks, Thomas Morgan, Michael Attias, Bill McHenry, and Loren Stillman. His playing, which had been growing more and more minimal when I first heard him, seems to have reversed course and become more dense, more active, with a wider dynamic range and a more 'drumistic' vocabulary. I see him play double strokes, conventional time-keeping patterns with brushes, backbeats, shuffles, idiomatic fills- things I'd heard him play on old recordings, but never thought I'd see him play live. His gigs, and the groups he presents, are a balance of tried and true and experimental. And he is, maybe for the first time, a happy fixture on the NYC jazz scene, making many recordings with younger musicians, and occasionally even appearing as a listener at other people's gigs. From my distant perspective, he seems a proud elder statesman. Of course, there are stories of his moods, and I see a set at the Vanguard where he's definitely NOT happy (and yelling at the band), but overall, a sunnier figure than the one I first saw and heard ten years ago.

This week he's at the Vanguard with Ben Street, Thomas Morgan, Masabumi Kikuchi, Bill McHenry and Loren Stillman.  Early evening, I meet my good friend, a most wonderful jazz musician who's worked with Paul, to go to hear Paul at the Vanguard. This FOVS (Friend Of VS's) knowing of my great-and-still-growing respect and admiration for Paul's playing, suggests that we meet at a restaurant/coffee shop around the corner from the Vanguard, where, he says, Paul likes to go before the gig.

VS and FOVS: talk talk joke joke talk talk joke joke (with an eye toward the door)

In walks Paul Motian. He is a very small man.

FOVS: Hi Paul

Paul Motian: Uh oh, you're following me!

FOVS: (smiling, genuine) No, we aren't following you, just getting some food.

Paul Motian: Alright man, alright.

(He goes to the counter, and orders. We continue our conversation as he waits for his food. When it comes, he takes it to a table, and sits down, alone, right behind us)

FOVS: (casual, genuine) Paul, you're more than welcome to join us if you'd like.

Paul Motian: Ok man, sure.

FOVS: Paul, this is my friend VS, a drummer.

VS: Hi Paul, really great to meet you.

Paul Motian: Alright, man, yeah. (Quietly, and gladly) So, what you guys up to tonight?

FOVS(delighted, humorous, respectful- a master at engaging with Paul Motian): We're coming to see you, man!

Paul Motian: Uh-oh! Hahahaha, alright. Cool man.

FOVS (knowing just what to say): How're the crowds so far?

Paul Motian: Pretty good, man, they're pretty good. We have two basses this week. It's really great having two bass players, really great. Hey, [fantastic musician] took me to this vegan restaurant on 13th Street. I went there with Poo the other night man. You know this place? I think it's called [name omitted]?

FOVS: Sure, we go there a lot with [fantastic musician]. Vinnie plays with [fantastic musician] too, Paul.

VS: (going for it!): Yeah, a student of mine that works there [the vegan restaurant] told me he waited on you guys last night.

Paul Motian: Oh yeah? That guy was your student? Alright man. (Pleased. Settling in. To VS) I gotta play at Cornelia Street Cafe next week, you ever play there?

VS: Yeah, I've played there a lot actually.

Paul Motian: They have some Canopus drums there, right?

VS: Yeah, uh-huh, Canopus.

Paul Motian: How are they? They any good?

VS: They're great. Fine. Totally cool.

Paul Motian: How're the heads on the bass drum? They don't have those pinstripe heads on there, do they?

VS: No, no. Just some ambassadors. The drum rings a bit.

Paul Motian: Right, ok. I played there before, that's what I remember. (Easing back, feeling comfortable, enjoying talking shop) You know, I used to have this Gretsch kit.

VS's Mind: I know. Before that you had a Slingerland, and you apparently had a Sonor kit that you may have used only in Europe, but you seem to have had an endorsement deal with Sonor, at least for a brief period in the 80s, based on the magazine ads and the Sonor drums shout-out on the It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago LP from 1984 on ECM Records. The Gretsch kit was in a Modern Drummer article that appeared in 1994, just as you were debuting the Electric Bebop Band. I actually still have the magazine and I remember the day I got it in the mail.

VS: Oh yeah?

Paul Motian: Yeah, I recently got rid of it, and got a new set of Canopus.

VS's Mind: Yes, this apparently happened some time in the last 6 weeks, and I regret that I didn't attend the Vanguard the week you first used them. I believe you bought them at Maxwell's, isn't that correct? Everyone tells me you have an 18" bass drum, which I've never seen you use. I'm most curious as to how they sound.

VS: How are they?

Paul Motian: (Glad you asked!) Well, I have an 18" bass drum now. I'm starting to tune them up, they sound pretty good. I have to play at Birdland in a couple weeks. (Seeming to enjoy himself, and the company.) What do you think of those drums?

VS: Well, you know, to be honest, I don't dig them. I don't like the way they sound.

Paul Motian: Well I dig 'em, cause at least then I don't have to bring my fucking drums, ha ha ha ha ha ha! I hate bringing my drums, and packing 'em up, ha ha ha ha ha ha. But I know what you mean man, I know what you mean. You guys going out of town this summer for some gigs?

VS: No, not this summer.

FOV: One gig in Italy next month.

Paul Motian: Oh man, one time I was in Italy, at this big hotel, and I was in the lobby, and there's Milt Jackson at the desk! ha ha ha ha So I go up to him and I say "Hey Milt, hey man!" He turns around and looks at me and says "Oh hi Paul. Still playing the drums?" (Paul slumps over in his chair to demonstrate how he felt). Man, I felt like two inches tall. So I said "Yeah, Bags." Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

FOVS/VS: (Surprised by his candor, happy that he seems happy.) Hahahahaha!

FOVS: (Changing the subject) Hey Paul, did you ever play with Billie Holiday?

Paul Motian: (guarded, but willing to talk) Yeah man, one time, out on Long Island.

FOVS/VS: (expression of joy and admiration).

We eventually realize it's time to go.

Paul Motian: Hey man, so you teach drums, huh?  

VS: Yeah. I teach all the regular stuff. Reading and rudiments. We do the Wilcoxon book.

Paul Motian: I used to practice out of that book all the time.

VS: Really?  

Paul Motian: Yeah man, since I was a kid. You know, one time in Chicago, Philly Joe and Max Roach were in a hotel room practicing out of that book, and Old Man Wilcoxon was there, and he heard them playing his book, and (he holds his hands up to his eyes) he was so moved that tears come to his eyes.

VS's Mind: This is the greatest story I've ever heard. This is too much to handle, because it's literally everything I love in one place. Paul Motian talking about Max Roach and Philly Joe playing for Charley Wilcoxon, overcome by emotion, because of snare drum, rudiments, and traditional grip. The only way this could be improved would be if we were all reading The New Yorker right now.

VS: Wow!

Arriving at the Vanguard, I make a motion to get in line, but both FOVS and Paul gesture for me to follow them downstairs. Paul then tells the person working the door that we're friends of his. So I enter the Vanguard, without paying the cover, and for a moment I am a friend of Paul's.



On Traditional Grip

Intro/Painfully Obvious Comments: 

The traditional grip is a way of holding drumsticks. Here's a pic of Mr. Max Roach holding the sticks with a traditional grip: 

Notice that his right hand (holding the stick farthest off the drum) and his left hand (holding the stick closest to the drum) are holding the sticks differently.

I've often wondered when this grip began being called "traditional". Not too long ago, it was the only way drummers held their sticks, excepting timpanists and mallet percussionists. Every drummer (quite literally, every single one) I've met who is over age 55 learned this grip at their first drum lesson. 

So a drumstick grip wouldn't be called 'traditional' if it's being used by everyone. Words like 'traditional' get attached to activities (like cooking, for example) only after another way of doing that activity has come along. 

The other way of doing this particular activity- holding drumsticks with the intent of striking the drum in a controlled manner- is called the matched grip. Here's a pic of Mr. Max Roach holding the sticks with a matched grip. 

Though this isn't the highest quality photo, and we don't have a perfect view of his right hand, we can still see clearly that his left hand and right hand are holding the sticks in the same way. Hence the term 'matched'. 

Speak, Memory! 

When I was a kid, the traditional grip seemed exotic and beautiful. I associated it with serious, grown-up jazz drummers. I didn't hold the sticks that way when I played- I played a matched grip. I was also 10, and "playing" meant "playing along with Beatles records". But anyway. 

Thinking about 1990, 1991, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta were frequently pictured and written about in Modern Drummer magazine, and they played the traditional grip, and talked about it. Then there was the June 1992 Modern Drummer Tony Williams feature, with pictures of him from a 1989 Modern Drummer Festival appearance. He looked huge, intense, imposing, and like a capital-A Artist. I was a fan before I'd heard him play a note.  And he was playing that traditional grip, and making it look powerful. 

A few months later I took my first drum lesson with Mr. Rick Compton, with whom I studied until I finished high school. He insisted on the traditional grip in our lessons, and would accept nothing else. So I learned it. And I loved it. I suddenly felt an immediate, distant, yet real connection to a whole host of cool-looking drummers whose playing I loved. And I was different from most drummers I met. 

Rick, in a very systematic way, taught me the rudiments, and brought me through the classic snare drum and drumset texts. Excursions to jazz camps and other typical high-school music opportunities all resulted in powerful musical experiences, and I had them all while holding the sticks with a traditional grip. So when I began playing gigs, and ended up at music school, I was a "traditional grip player", with a few years of experience (or baggage) under my belt. 

As you might guess, once at music school, I was immediately dissatisfied with all I had done, and tried switching to a matched grip for a few years. I remember constantly going back and forth between matched and traditional in the course of one tune, very undecided. Eventually there was the move to NYC, and as I went about putting together a career and reputation as a musician, I realized that I was most truly myself when playing the traditional grip, and that I badly wanted to show it to anyone interested in learning it. 

Why I Play Traditional Grip

I play the traditional grip so that I feel a connection to the great drummers of the past; they inspired me as a young man and still inspire me today. After all, it was the grip used to develop the rudiments, the drumset, and jazz drumming. And I have the great honor of using the same grip my heros used, and making it my own, which they all did. Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Paul Motian, Max Roach, and all my heros remind me that there is no limit to what can be achieved with the traditional grip.

I use the traditional grip because it's the same grip I used as a young man, and I carry all my own history, for better or worse, with that grip.

I use the traditional grip because it's difficult, and forces me to examine the technique I'm using at all times. My right hand is different from my left hand, and the traditional grip accentuates this difference, which means I learn and improve as I try to make my hands equal. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the traditional grip is a marker. It announces the serious intention of the drummer to everyone. Traditional grip says "I'm VERY SERIOUS about drumming folks! So serious that I hold the sticks in a counter-intuitive way, because people used to!" When I was a teenager, that kind of marker/statement was exactly what I needed. It gave me something to practice, some very clear goals to be achieved, and set me apart from many other drummers my age, without isolating me. In fact, I've often guessed that the best reason I still play drums today is that I learned the traditional grip. 

I feel a great responsibility to pass on something that made such a difference in my life to anyone that's remotely interested. 



Musicians across the globe still study counterpoint, even though a computer could be easily programmed to churn out counterpoint homework. We have so many other, more pressing things to study, and there is no direct, practical application for the knowledge. No one is being commissioned to write four-part masses following the model of Palestrina and other masters. But still, we study it. Why? 

Because we feel cool studying it. It's arcane and pointless and beautiful. We feel as though we're getting access to ancient learning, it's hard to do, and if we have any success, it boosts our confidence. If it was good enough for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, we rationalize, it's probably good enough for us. We have the privilege to study what they studied! What fun! It will mess with our instincts from time to time- but the other option is never to study, and then, unless you are very lucky, you will, sooner or later, become bored out of your mind trying to make music with a fixed set of skills. So you're in trouble regardless, so we might as well study. For me, that's traditional grip. It looks cool, it's old, and it's exciting and enriching to learn. Mel used it. Tony used it. Paul Motian used it. Hell, Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Jim Gordon, and Levon Helm used it! And, like counterpoint, it's a fantastic teaching tool. It slows everything down in a good way, and forces discussions about technique, relaxation, and sound at drum lessons, even with beginners.


Advice to a young jazz musician moving to NYC

1. Say yes to everything. 

Session at a bass players house? Yes. Gig in Jersey City for $40, toll money, and dinner? Yes. Singer's demo recording session? Yes. High school musical in White Plains? Yes. Jam session at the Tea Lounge? Yes. Say yes for moral and financial reasons. Take it all, play your ass off, and be cool. 

2. Go hear everyone play, especially older jazz musicians. 

Pay the cover, buy the drink, sit in the front. Don't worry if the music is good, bad, or indifferent. You will learn something.  Any conclusion you draw is likely to change in a few months anyway. 

3. Assume every musician you meet, on any gig, in any scene, of any age, of any background, is very, very good. 

This is not an arts-friendly cheap-living European capitol  This is not a Midwest college town. This is New York. Most musicians moved here from somewhere far away to achieve their life's dream. If they have lived here longer than you, they know something you don't, and are very, very good at something. So be cool. 

4.) Give every musician you meet a reason to notice you. 

I do not know how many musicians move to New York ever year. I do know that very, very few of them stay. Therefore, if you tell an older musician, "I just moved to town", that older musician is quite reasonably seeing you as one of many. If you wish to stand out, play as well as you can, and be friendly, polite, and sincere. You might be surprised how many people notice. 

5.) Be generous in praising and supporting friends, colleagues, and peers. 

Your friend, who moved here with you, gets a great gig, while you are hoping to maybe sit in somewhere. Go to his or her gig, and cheer him or her on. At a jam session, you are outplayed by someone your age. Try to make some connection with that person. Again, this will be better morally and materially, and no, this is not easy. 

6.) Have extremely clear goals, and go right to work achieving them. 

A very clear goal might be very general: "Check out NYC jazz and/or the music scene in general!" Maybe you're more specific:  "I want this band, with these people, to play these tunes, at this place, for this amount of people, x number of times per year/month/week". Excellent. Get cracking. Not sure of your goal? No problem. Just acknowledge that you're unsure. You'll figure it out.