Preview: Guitarist Tackles Motian's Music & More


Carl Michel and Paul Motian

Local jazz guitarist Carl Michel // Late drummer and composer Paul Motian.

The late drummer Paul Motian was an icon not only among his fellow percussionists, but as a composer in his own right. With credits ranging from the great pianist Bill Evans’ trio and the legendary Keith Jarrett led mid-70s small ensemble, Motian became important in many ways as a mentor and unique presence in modern jazz.

Ann Arbor-based jazz guitarist Carl Michel has recognized the contributions of Paul Motian to the extent he has re-created a complete repertoire of his music. Michel also has his own substantial set list of original music and interpretations of standards, including his favorite compositions written by Chick Corea and Antonio Carlos Jobim - plenty of material to present at his live performances.

In the interim of his research and recording of Motian’s music, he has recently discovered a blog of Cindy McGuirl, Paul Motian’s niece, who is self publishing a book of his compositions. Her blog is titled “Uncle Paul’s Jazz Closet” that has podcasts of radio shows that she curates featuring her uncle’s music. She is publishing a first volume, and if there is enough interest, there will be a follow-up compendium.

Carl Michel started playing electric guitar, switching from cornet, inspired by 1960s rock and blues guitarists. A student at the West Bank School Of Music in Minneapolis, then the Berklee College Of Music, Michel moved to Austin, Texas with his brother, percussionist Robert "Booka" Michel, and became a co-founder of the Creative Opportunity Orchestra, with the innovative lead vocalist Tina Marsh. In 1983, he lived Madison, Wisconsin for a decade, settled in Detroit and then Ann Arbor, where he teaches at the Ann Arbor Music Center, and formed the Carl Michel Group, performing in the Metro Detroit area since 1995.

He has received two Emmy awards in Music Composition and Arrangement based on his work during the 16-part documentary series about 1930s-2000s pioneering female journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer Doris O’Donnell Beaufait titled “Cleveland.” His music is featured on film soundtracks "The Fourteenth Victim - Eliot Ness & The Torso Murders,” and “Dusk & Shadow - The Mystery Of Beverly Potts.” He has five recordings as a leader that explores contemporary jazz stylings with either a straight ahead or funky side. The 1998 Carl Michel Group and 2000 Carl Michel Group + CDs received across the board critical review acclaim and nationwide radio airplay.

Those initial CDs are a source of pride for the guitarist in that he received much unexpected praise and attention. “I do want to mention my vinyl LP from the 1980s when I was living in Madison called Food Of Love. That was a trio record. I thought it was more adventurous. When you get your first recording out, it is a sense of accomplishment. It made Cadence Magazine’s Editors Picks. When I moved to Detroit and got to know some people, did some more writing and got to know (drummer) Gerald Cleaver, (bassist) Tim Flood and (saxophonist) Michael Graye, Alex Trajano did the recording, Then I wanted to do a larger ensemble for the Group + and had a good core. So in came (saxophonist) Andrew Bishop, (trumpeter) Paul Finkbeiner and (pianist) Ellen Rowe, and did more extensive writing with more orchestration and arrangement.”

The Creative Opportunity Orchestra led him to believe his arrangements were another valuable aspect of his talent, thus his involvement with film scores. “For ‘Cleveland,’ I had a vision of the Ken Burns documentaries, and I thought I needed more music that related to the period, and I thought more of that time period. There are some elements of darkness like her covering the Sam Shepherd story, and then Doris O’Donnell’s traveling with the Cleveland Indians, unheard of for a woman at that time. And there were stories of women working in factories during World War II. There were many things to think about, but I was given free reign. I was given the synopsis of the series and I wrote themes and sent MIDI files for editing. Some of it was quartet and others were solo piano.”

As far as his connection to Paul Motian’s music, it goes back to his early interest in jazz. I got information from record stores - the first record I had was a Wes Montgomery or Milt Jackson album, then Ralph Towner and Gary Burton. I liked the ECM label and the sound. I fell into John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny pretty hard, but I found a promo copy of Dance by Paul Motian on ECM, which at first I didn’t get it but I loved the spacious sound, and there was no other drummer so unique. Then it was his project Rambler with electric guitarist Bill Frisell and got reacquainted with Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet and Quintet. But it was Paul’s Live In Tokyo that really turned the light on and I realized so much in his music - elements of Thelonious Monk, Eastern European music and Ornette Coleman coming together in his writing and it hit a peak.”

“I tried to get in touch with him, wrote to the record label - his music is not in The Real Book - and he graciously sent me 10-12 copies of his music. I got together with some people and went through this music ten years ago, There’s a lot of depth and you see how the writing is becoming stronger. Then he was not touring, only playing in New York and I went to the Village Vanguard to hear him, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. It was religious and mesmerizing. Then he passed away in 2011. Through the internet I was able to meet others who were interested in his music, had copies and was able to exchange music with them. I wrote his music administrator to see if I could get more, was able to, and did the recording project of which I’m proud of.”

As multi-faceted a musician as Carl Michel is, we listeners and his students are benefactors of his vision and broad experience. On the surface as laid back and less interested in image, Carl Michel is a major figure in the Ann Arbor jazz scene we all should pay closer attention to.

Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local, national and international music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.

Carl Michel & Friends with bassist Keith Malinowski and woodwindist Paul VornHagen play The Old Town Tavern, 122 W. Liberty, Wednesday, November 16 at 8 pm. For more information call (734) 662-9291 or visit online at