Jakob Bro and Joe Lovano: ‘Once Around the Room: A Tribute to Paul Motian’

Ten years after the death of Paul Motian, an ensemble led by Jakob Bro and Joe Lovano met in Copenhagen to record Once Around the Room, a powerful personal tribute to Motian’s work. This three-way conversation with Bro and Lovano about the genesis of the album took place at the Civilian Hotel in Manhattan. Interview by LJN’s New York writer Dan Bergsagel.

LondonJazz News: What were your first impressions of Paul Motian?

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Jakob Bro: It was like 20 years ago when I met him. He came into a lobby in Italy and gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever had. Of course, I was nervous playing with him, but he just made me feel good right at the beginning. That day we went to a little rehearsal space as he wanted to hear me play – he hadn’t heard me play before I joined his band – and we played Introspection. Nobody was supposed to solo but me, and we just played that one song, and Paul got up and went “Yeah man, I like it”.

He was very sweet and warm to me. He basically rehired me for the next tour after two gigs. We had breakfast and he asked if I would do the next round of concerts that he had, which gave me some peace of mind as I kept thinking “When is he going to tell me to get the hell out of here?”. That really felt nice. I’d been preparing for that first tour for six or eight months – I literally knew everything. All the songs he had written: the standard material, all the broadway, the bebop band, I knew them by heart. After learning all this music and before joining up with his band I spent a week in my summerhouse with my friends, and I just made them call different songs and I played them with no music in front of me.

I was very well prepared for that first meeting, and I think he appreciated that. The first gig we did he changed the setlist right on the band stand: all the other musician’s ran backstage to get music paper, and I didn’t because I knew the songs. He came up to me after the gig and said “Yeah man, I saw that”. I felt like a kid, it just rocked my world to be in this band. 

Joe Lovano: I was in Paul’s audience years before I met him. I was inspired by all his records, all his sessions. The first time I heard him play live was in Boston at the Jazz Workshop in 1972 with the Keith Jarrett Quartet. At that moment, it was clear to me that these were the cats I wanted to play with. I was thinking “How am I going to get myself together and play with these people?” 

I had moved to NYC in 1976, and in 1979 Paul played at the Public Theatre with his trio opposite Dewey Redman’s quartet. I went with this amazing guitarist named Bill DeArango, who had played with Charlie Parker and Ben Webster, and knew Paul from playing together in Cleveland, where I’m from. That night Bill introduced me to Paul.

It wasn’t until one Monday night in 1981, Marc Johnson – who I knew from the Woody Herman band and played with in the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra every Monday night at the Vanguard – says to me that he was rehearsing with Paul and Bill Frisell as a trio, and that Paul wants to hear some sax players and remembered me from the meeting with DeArango. I knew Frisell from studying together at Berklee in the early 70s. I played that one little session at Paul’s pad – we played some beautiful music – and that was the beginning.

JB: Do you remember what you played at that first session with Paul?

JL: That first song we played was My Man is Gone Now. We played a few others, but I really remember that one because he made such a definitive recording with Bill Evans of it. And after that session, while I maybe didn’t get a big hug from Paul where he grabs you, like Jakob did, from that moment our relationship started and I felt I had Paul’s embrace. We went on to record our first record later that year – Psalm, and then our first European tour.

JB: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at that session. When you met Paul in ‘81 I was just turning three years old. But I remember distinctly hearing Psalm for the first time when I was in Paris auditioning for a scholarship for Berklee. I was staying in a shitty hotel room and had just bought the CD from Virgin Records or something and was 16. I listened to it and man, I had no idea what was going on but I loved it. It completely swiped me off my feet.

LJN: What did you learn from playing with Paul?

JB: The first time I recorded with him was in 2006. I still remember sending him the first emails arranging that session, because it was a dream of mine to record my own music with Paul. I knew he ran around the park every morning, so I knew that right after that time he would be checking his email. So I sent him this email asking if he would consider recording under my name, once I was ready in three or four years time. He replied within five minutes to say he would be down, but thought we should instead do it in three weeks when I was going to be in New York anyway to play with him at the Village Vanguard. I felt trapped in a way, as I couldn’t say “no” but I didn’t feel ready, on any level. But I started writing music anyway and we met in the studio. I learnt so much from that session. 

I also should say that Once Around the Room was the first time that I recorded with Joe. I remember being a little kid in Denmark, and hearing different saxophone players doing certain things. I would ask them what they were doing and why, and they all pointed me towards Joe’s work. When I started listening to that, I realised that this was the source. So for me this was very special.

JL: That first quintet that I was in with Paul in 1981 was a real collective experience. There weren’t a whole lot of individual solos, we shared the space in a certain way that was really different for me. After that Jim Pepper joined the band and we did three records for Soul Note – Misterioso, The Story of Maryam, and Jack of Clubs. During that same period the trio with Paul was emerging, and together we toured Europe three times a year for a bunch of years – 1983 to 1986. A lot of beautiful ideas and things were happening in those groups, and that just carried on with so many different projects over the years. But the trio, with Bill Frisell and I, we played with Paul right up until his passing in 2011, for 30 years.  

LJN: What was the initial impetus for this new record?

JL: This was really the outcome of both of our relationships with Manfred Eicher at ECM. Paul and Keith Jarrett put ECM on the map in the early 1970s, and Manfred brought us together to collaborate and play with a purpose in a magical way.

JB: On the morning of the recording session, I just checked on my phone what day Paul passed, and was surprised that, oh – it was ten years ago that day. Having the group even be able meet during that time of COVID was surreal, and that made it very special somehow.

LJN: Over those years you have both collaborated with Paul on music in so many different styles – the Broadway series, Bill Evans tributes, the Electric Bebop Band – what have you tried to distil in this six track record?

JL: Both Jakob and I wrote pieces for the recording, and we also played one of Paul’s tunes. But really it’s all one; it’s not styles, it’s a way of playing together and sharing the space, and trying to create music within the music. With Paul we often played standards – I just call them famous songs – and the challenge there is how to make them your own. You play with trust, with attitude and with an approach that is all encompassing. That’s what it felt like playing with Paul, and that’s what it felt like during the session.

JB: Paul has always been present in my work since I started listening to him, and that hasn’t changed at all since his passing. It felt so nice to have a Paul Motian-related project, and I really enjoyed going back to all those albums again when I was preparing for this session, thinking about those memories with him and thinking about how lucky I’ve been to learn from him and to tour with him.

LJN: Paul’s bands typically only have one drummer and one bassist – what was the idea behind changing that line-up for Once About the Room?

JB: I never played with Paul in small ensembles – I only played with him with double, even triple, guitars. One time at the Vanguard we had a double and electric bass, two horn players and three guitars. It was a pretty massive sound. So the setup for this session felt very natural to me.

JL: I had a band called Us Five, which had double drummers. I told Paul that because he couldn’t make the date, I needed two drummers to replace him. For this recording, it was like a little orchestra, because Jakob’s idea was that it was about the people – people who had relationships with Paul – more than the specificities of the lineup. The way they play as a percussion section changes the feel of the band, and the way that the three basses and Jakob play together is very orchestral. It was beautiful to have all these colours, these feelings and sounds swirling within the music.

LJN: The line-up brought international musicians together to Copenhagen – do you think the location influenced the mood and sound?

JL: Music takes you places, the people you play with take you places, and where you are takes you places. If you record in New York City you’re going to have a different energy to anywhere else, but the atmosphere you create in the music is beyond time and space. It’s a mystical thing, and that’s the essence of jazz music.

JB: When I started writing music I was playing in Paul’s band and his presence was so strong. But I feel like my roots and my geography somehow helped me to find a different approach, which is still related to everything you are inspired by, but unique to your background. There were American standards, but there were also Danish musicians. I played psalms in church on trumpet, my parents used to sing songs to me as a kid, and all this comes together to create a unique sound.

JL: Copenhagen looms very large in European jazz history, along with Paris, London, Amsterdam. I’ve played in Copenhagen a lot. The first time Jakob and I played together was in Copenhagen in 2009, and that was really the start of our relationship.

Where you play is important. Jakob and I played with Paul in the Village Vanguard, where he made some of his most famous recordings. It’s also the same room that Thelonius Monk played in. Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, all the masters. So if you play in that venue and atmosphere, it’s just another thing that inspires you. You dig deep beyond the technique and draw from so many things. It’s not academic, it’s about expression.

LJN: What is next on the calendar for this special ensemble?

JB: After the release on November 4th, we are playing 12 sets at the Vanguard next May. I’m really looking forward to that as it gives us a longer time together to play and explore the music. I can say the Vanguard is by far my favourite venue. It’s a great space, but the way it was started, and how it’s been run by a family, really adds to it. 

JL: Every space has its own feeling, but the Vanguard is great. The room is quiet, there are no burgers or waiters. It’s a real church-like feeling: you can play with no PA. I’m just imagining the sound, and the way we’re going to set up in that space without the piano there – it’s going to be like a real orchestral presentation. To play as that full ensemble in that space in an acoustic way is going to be very exciting. 

Once Around the Room is released on 4 November 2022. The group are scheduled to play at the Village Vanguard between 23rd and 28th May 2023.

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