Is any drummer more lyrical?
Paul Motian, drummer, composer, collaborator, bandleader
March 25, 1931-November 22, 2011
Paul Motian Trio (PM, drums; Joe Lovano, saxophone; Bill Frisell, guitar), “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago” (P. Motian), live, New York (Village Vanguard), 2005
Stephen Paul Motian (he pronounced his surname, which was Armenian, like the word “motion”) was born in Philadelphia on March 25, 1931, and reared in Providence, R.I. In 1950 he entered the Navy. After briefly attending its music school in Washington, he sailed around the Mediterranean until 1953, when he was stationed in Brooklyn. He was discharged a year later.
He met Evans in 1955, and by the end of the decade he was working in a trio with him and the bassist Scott LaFaro. That group, in which the bass and drums interacted with the piano as equals, continues to serve as an important source of modern piano-trio jazz.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Mr. Motian played with many other bandleaders, including Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Mose Allison, Tony Scott, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin and, for a week, [Thelonious] Monk. After leaving his partnership with Evans, he worked steadily with the pianist Paul Bley, whom he often credited with opening him up to greater possibilities.
“All of a sudden there was no restrictions, not even any form,” he told the writer and drummer Chuck Braman in 1996. “It was completely free, almost chaotic.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Bley recalled: “We shared the same philosophy, musically. He knew that what he was doing in the past was not his answer. What he lived for was growth and change.”
Then, and even more with Mr. Jarrett’s quartet in the 1970s, Mr. Motian moved away from swing-based rhythm; he improvised freely, or played off melodic form. Eager to grow beyond percussion, he studied and composed on a piano he had bought from Mr. Jarrett, and in 1973 he made a record of his own compositions for ECM, “Conception Vessel,” with Mr. Jarrett and others. One of the last records he made with Mr. Jarrett’s quartet, “Byablue” (1977), consisted mostly of Motian originals.
But the old sense of swing never left, and it later became abundantly clear again, whether he was playing an original sketch built on uneven phrasing with gaps of silence or a root text of jazz like “Body and Soul.” Sometimes he would strip a beat to absolute basics, the sound of brushes on a dark-toned ride cymbal and the abrupt thump of his low-tuned kick drum. Generally, a listener could locate the form, even when Mr. Motian didn’t state it explicitly.
“With Paul, there was always that ground rhythm, that ancient jazz beat lurking in the background,” said the pianist Ethan Iverson, one of the younger bandleaders who played with and learned from him toward the end.
Mr. Motian’s final week at the Vanguard was with Mr. Osby and Mr. Kikuchi, in September. “He was an economist: every note and phrase and utterance counted,” Mr. Osby said on Tuesday. “There was nothing disposable.”
—Ben Ratliff, New York Times, 11/22/11
Where will my ears be today?
WKCR-FM (broadcasting from Columbia University): they’re celebrating his life and music all day, playing his stuff—and nothing but—until midnight.
One in my hand
One in the air
And one in you.
—Bill Knott, “The Juggler to His Audience”