By Fred Setterberg
LOS ANGELES, 11 DECEMBER 2011 As a teenager, I purchased the
album, The Bill Evans Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard. Evans
on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Ten days after
completing the recording, LaFaro died in a car accident on his way home
from a gig. Spooky. You couldnt help thinking about it while listening to
"I Loves You, Porgy," which everybody knew was the best cut on the album.
It was about just two things. Desire and death. Thats what my best friend
Frankie told me and I had to agree.
At sixteen, Frankie and I were both deep, deep into jazz the only
teenagers in our suburban blue-collar town to mail twelve dollars to New
York City in order to secure biweekly subscriptions to Down Beat
magazine. We scanned every issue for news of the most romantic world
imaginable: the world of Birdland, the Five Spot, and the Blue Note, where
John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin and Johnny Hodges all held court on the
saxophone while zip young men in silk suits and pink shirts donned cheap
sunglasses long past sundown and clinked chilled tumblers of Scotch and
soda with slinky young women wearing their thick black hair slashed to the
shoulders and carrying in their purses the keys to their own studio
Frankies favorite album was Charles Minguss The Black Saint and
the Sinner Lady. The liner notes, jointly written by the composer and
his psychologist, suggested that Mingus regarded the album as a kind of
love song. I was intrigued by the possibility that the sound of love might
reside in the snort and gargle of the baritone sax and the trumpets
bleating like duck calls and the trombones churning slightly above the low
end of their register.
But Frankie said it wasnt love we were listening to at all.
What we were listening to was the sound of sex.
We listened to the recording endlessly. There were lush ensemble
passages that sounded as though Duke Ellington had suddenly taken command
punctuated by Minguss hog calls of encouragement as each member
of the orchestra stepped up to solo. The sharp little spurts of ecstasy
when Booker Ervin rolled out lines of West Texas blues on tenor or Jaki
Byard hammered fistfuls of jagged piano chords. Mingus thrumming, poking,
plunking, and finally caressing his bass like a man with three hands and
twenty fingers. The reeds and brass blending together in a tissue of cries
and tiny percussive sighs of satisfaction.
Frankie certainly had a point about the meaning of this music. How
could I argue with a man of the world like Frankie?
But something else was going on, too. I could hear it. Something at the
bottom of the music. Sounds full of signifying, though they made no sense
at all when reduced to words. The flamenco guitar bursting into flames and
the alto saxophone squealing. The ochre bash of cymbals and earth-brown
bass lines charred to black. There was nothing in this music that spoke in
the least to my own pale and limited experience. Except what lay beneath
the sound. That deep well of undeniable longing.
Longing always brought me back to Evans, LaFaro, and Motian.
When Paul Motian died last week at 80, the last of
the trio to disappear from this world, I listened again and again to
Live at the Village Vanguard.
In the final ninety seconds of "I Loves You, Porgy," Bill Evans
hit the main line of the melody, while LaFaro paused at each beat and
Motian scratched at his snare drum with brushes. And in the background,
you could hear the muttering of a girl in the audience, her voice pitched
above the roar of the bar and the clink of glasses and she laughed. Here
she was, missing this amazing performance, three great artists at their
peak. Yet after you listened to the song twenty times or so, it didnt
seem like an interruption. The girls careless, giddy, snockered giggle
fixed to the moment, and then she was indispensable, too practically a
member of the band.
As a kid, I liked to think about how someday the girl on the record
would play that cut for her boyfriend or husband or her own kids even, and
they wouldnt believe it was her chattering away ten or fifteen or thirty
years before, until they recognized that laugh.
I imagined something else, too.
No, I knew.
I saw myself, someday, playing "I Loves You, Porgy" for some girl I
hadnt met yet. Wed be lying together in bed, done with whatever it was
that people do, and itd be raining outside, but warm where we were still
touching. Near the bed there would be a bottle of something, probably
Lancers. Wed be trading sips from the same glass and listening, bobbing
our heads in time tothe swish of Motians brushes. And she would get it.
Everynote. Definitely. So would I.
Longing never ends.
From Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel by
Headline image: Paul Motian (Philadelphia, 1931 New York, 2011)
Fred Setterberg is the author of
The Roads Taken: Travels Through Americas Literary
Landscapes and the co-author with Lonny Shavelson
of Under the Dragon: Californias
New Culture. He last wrote on New
Orleans Jazz: before and after Katrina for