Motian in Motion
(Film directed by Michael Patrick Kelly. Aquapio Films. 86 minutes. Review by Jon Turney)
UPDATE 5 January 2020 via Twitter from DocnRoll Fest: “England going into another full lockdown now so this live public premiere is being rescheduled…New dates TBA in coming weeks.”
A small guy in baggy sweatpants exits an apartment building in Manhattan, and sets off at a gentle jog towards nearby Central Park. He chats with the cameraman and passers-by: smalltalk, wisecracks, and observations on the passing scene. It’s well shot and edited, good to look at. You feel you have been along with him on an everyday excursion.
The scene-setter for this fine, feature-length documentary on Paul Motian shows the qualities that run through it. Filmmaker Michael Patrick Kelly forged a close relationship with his subject. There is a little acting up for the camera, but not too much. Mostly it is just there. And it has marvellous access. Not, it turns out, to the inside of the apartment building. It isn’t a film about Motian in private. But inside a host of what for the jazz lover may be more important spaces – clubs, rehearsal rooms, studios, a student seminar.
As a portrait of a working musician, it could hardly be bettered. Motian had stopped touring by the noughties, rarely left town – and the camera is there whether he’s bound for a meal with bandmates, a recording, or a mixing session. And there, again and again, when he plays live.
That yields a huge amount of superb music, which is interwoven with older clips to provide an overview of a master-drummer’s career, from Bill Evans to Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett (not to mention backing Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock: “I like cowboy music, man”, says Motian with a grin). But the focus is on the last phase of that career, on the free-wheeling marvel that was the long-running trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, and on the many other bands he convened or sat in with then. Spoken contributions from players and admirers, such as Carla Bley, Manfred Eicher and critic Nate Chinen, fill out the picture.
The result is a rich portrait of a truly important musician. It’s also a deep dive into a still-matchless music scene, and a cinematic love-letter to New York and its clubs: Iridium, Birdland, the Jazz Standard and, above all, Motian’s home from home, the Village Vanguard. Access – out front and back stage – is great here, too, and if you’ve never visited the Vanguard, watching this film will rekindle the wish. You’ll also end up sorry for the guy who blunders into the kitchen, AKA green room, and says Motian, Frisell and Lovano should have played longer in the last set.
Near the end, there’s a change of tone. When Motian died in 2011, after some years of filming, things were put on hold. Kelly resumed interviewing much later, and feeding these comments in is marked by a switch from saying what a great player the drummer is, to how important he was. A little more biographical detail, though still virtually nothing about his personal life, completes a shift from a living portrait to a deeply felt obituary. It’s a tiny bit awkward structurally, but that’s how it happened so the film we finally have mirrors the circumstances of its making.
It’s a stunning tribute to a long musical life and a restlessly creative character. Not every important association is marked – that would need a much longer film – but Motian in Motion is a great representation of the range of his contributions, and of how much effort he put in to keep things always interesting. After a couple of viewings, I’ve spent far more time revisiting old recordings with renewed appreciation, and searching out ones I’ve not heard before. There are probably enough there for a lifetime. And the film suggests how, for one like Paul Motian, music can be enough for a lifetime, too.
Motian in Motion will have its London Premiere (online) as part of Doc’n’Roll film festival, delayed from November 2020, on 24 January at 5pm. Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and director Michael Patrick Kelly will be doing a pre-recorded Q&A that will play after the screening. There will be a further showing in late April or early May at Rock This Town Festival at the Cinéma Le Méliès in Pau, France.
A proud moment: the film review above happens to be the 10,000th post to appear on LondonJazz News. (Ed.)
LINKS: Motian in Motion at Doc n Roll Festival
Tickets from the BFI
Categories: Film review
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