Remembering Paul Motian

The Drummer Who Quietly Shook Things Up

by Will Layman

9 January 2012


At the Village Vanguard

The quartet is extremely familiar and free, but the classic adjective “tight” does not apply. Rather, this is a band that breathes freely and expansively without sounding confined. Motian sounds bigger at this stage in his career, taking up more of the sonic space or at least competing with the huge sounds of Redman and Jarrett more fully, while locking in with the great woody tone of Haden’s bass.

The title track “Byablue”, composed by Motian, features a blues-drenched melody that runs across a more traditional song form, but the performance is anything but traditional. Jarrett and Redman both play the melody, but they play in the ragged unison of the Ornette Coleman bands (which Redman played in several years before), with Haden roaming freely underneath the theme and Motian playing a thrilling set of cross-currents don’t even pretend to keep conventional time. It’s not that the band members sound disconnected from each other but that they sound intimately connected by rubber bands, the line and rhythms pulling and pushing, bending and then curving back. Motian seems to have a groove for each of them, all going at once.

“Trieste”, another Motian tune, is a dramatic rhapsody that begins with a stately Redman theme over free time, Motion scuffling in multiple tempos and coloring the proceedings freely. Then the tune settles into a second composed section in steady time. But even here, where the drummer might theoretically lock into set patterns to consolidate the groove, Motian has more ingenious business to tend to, with his patterns crossing over the groove while still complementing it, locking in for a pair of beats, then working as a kind of cross-hatching.

Not that he can’t drive a band. “Mushi Mushi”, from the same disc, puts Motian front and center in the mix, all sticks-on-cymbals and splashy, his hi-hat stomping on “two” and “four” and the groove being his only concern. But even here, Motian is a true jazz drummer. Jarrett’s piano solo is wonderful piece of invention, but it’ss inconceivable without Motian’s accompaniment: the kick drum and the snare both popping at irregular intervals like syncopated punches from Joe Frazier landing against the piano solo’s midsection. This is fun Paul Motian art. Even this most contemplative and subtle of drummers is still, you know… a drummer.


A decade on and Motian is a leader. His first record date (Conception Vessel on ECM from 1972) was based on tunes he wrote after buying a piano from Jarrett. But Motian becomes a leader to be reckoned with in the mid-‘80s through his work with a trio (frequently supplemented by others) including guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, neither of whom was yet a leader.

The astonishing Monk in Motian (1988) is built around the trio with some guest spots for pianist Geri Allen and Redman. Motian briefly played with Thelonious Monk in the ‘50s, and his affinity for the herky-jerky rhythms of Monk’s compositions is clear on this disc. “Evidence” is stated first as a dancing duet between Frisell’s chilly-toned stabs and Motian’s popping swing. As the theme is repeated, Lovano plays the “A” melody with Frisell and then they split into a contrapuntal conversation on the “B”. The saxophone solo proceeds in this jabbing dance, with the three players all independently moving around the groove (and, of course, through Monk’s harmonies) without any one player stating it directly. Which is to say: the Paul Motian Trio of the ‘80s was a clear descendant of the Bill Evans Trio of 1961.

The contemporary nature of this updating is even clearer on “Trinkle Tinkle”, where Motian’s loose-limbed swing not only dances freely but also starts to rock. Lovano’s solo is boppish and lovely, but when Frisell takes over we are hearing just the duet between the leader and a freshly distorted and amped-up guitar. Frisell plays louder, “outer”, and with a tremendous cry of tone, so Motian has no choice but to advance his energy. He hits the kit hard and, more importantly, with a directness that scans just a bit as “rock” even though the continual dialogue of jazz drumming remains Motian’s MO.

Not that Motian had lost his touch with brushes. “Reflections” is a seamless ballad that lets the leader move all across his kit in flutters and swinging strokes, free to pulse beneath Frisell’s haunting washes of sound but never in a way that feels traditional.  Even when Motian creates that classic jazz sound of “ching, ching-a-ding” on his ride cymbal, there is a dark tone and a near-immediate disruption to its smoothness. Offbeat but beautiful, Paul Motian’s most standard playing, by the ‘80s, was still an act of graceful revolution.


In the last few years, Motian recordings have become automatic contenders for top-ten lists—riveting, original, rapturously lovely, and often all-star dates.  Lost in a Dream from 2010 featured saxophonist Chris Potter and pianist Jason Moran in a program of mostly ballads that created a steely architecture of necessity for every last note. Listen to “Cathedral Song” is you want to understand the meaning of the word “yearning” or to get a sense of how “majesty” is expressed in music.

Where was the music recorded?  Live at the Village Vanguard, of course.

A couple years earlier, to choose just one of many possible Motian collaborations, Motian was Live at the Village Vanguard with is Trio 2000, plus two incredible guests. On a tune like “Olivia’s Dream” you can hear Motian swinging his own way with Larry Grenadier on bass and the Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi while Potter and also player Greg Osby work the melody and a riveting collaborative improvisation. Motian was hardly the only leader in jazz blending the tradition with quirky innovation, but how many others had been doing it successfully for three decades.

All the while, Motian remained a reliable and unique sideman for other leaders. In 2009 he joined Lee Konitz, along with pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Charlie Haden, live at Birdland for a club date and recording. The result was one of the last year’s most intense jazz records (Live at Birdland). Centered on a mood of intense introspection, this band of iconoclasts decided not to rehearse in attacking a batch of show tunes and bop classics.  As usual, Motian weaves it all together with him penchant for swinging without, really, keeping a regular time.

Though Paul Motian has passed on, there’s plenty of him still to come—that’s the nature of the record biz, always. Immediately, fans can look forward to the January 2012 release of Further Explorations, a Bill Evans-inspired trio recording from Motian, pianist Chick Corea, and bassist Eddie Gomez (already released in Japan). I’m certain that more of Motian, as a leader, will emerge as well—work likely more alive than whatever will win a jazz Grammy this year, at a minimum.

Downstairs in Greenwich Village, there will always be an echo of Paul Motian. Not four even quarter notes but something more like a scamper across the cymbals.  Every time a new drummer comes along or a fresh jazz composer seeks a new way with ballad, there will be Paul, a steady of reminder of its done right, and doing it over 50 years of quiet revolution.

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