Remembering Paul Motian: The Drummer Who Quietly Shook Things Up

It may seem odd to call a drummer “quiet”, but Paul Motian was Mr. Subtle. From the start of his career until the last months of his life, he was shaking things up. Quietly. Brilliantly.

Revolutions in jazz almost always relate to time. Armstrong’s conversion of jazz into a soloist’s art arose because of how he soared freely over the static two-beat groove of New Orleans jazz. The swing players created a flowing rhythmic swing in quarter notes, and then bebop fractured the even groove into continual syncopations by the drummer as well as 32nd-note solos that ran madly across bar lines.

Drummers, therefore, are always deeply involved in these revolutions: Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, and Ed Blackwell.

Jazz recently lost one of its quietest revolutionaries, Paul Motian, 80. It may seem odd to call a drummer “quiet”, but fans of the great drummer understand. Motian was Mr. Subtle, without a doubt, but he was also an activist for a different kind of time in jazz. From the start of his career until the last months of his life, he was shaking things up. Quietly. Brilliantly.


On the first Friday of September, I slipped down the narrow stairs to jazz’s most important basement. A great meal was in my belly, and I was thrilled to be heading to The Village Vanguard in New York with three good friends. Everything, including the fading days of summer, made it seem like special night.

The Vanguard had become Motian’s home away from home. In his late '70s, Motian essentially announced that he wasn’t going to be leaving New York for gigs any more, and Lorraine Gordon and the Vanguard opened the club’s doors to him whenever he had something to say. Whichwas often.

The band that night was Motian’s “New Trio”, featuring Ben Monder on guitar and Jerome Sabbagh on tenor saxophone. Motian had led a legendary trio with the same instrumentation a while back, a band in which Bill Frisell played all kind of textures and chordal washes and tenor man Joe Lovano pulled serpentine melodies out of pastel settings. How would this new band build on what was already a Motian masterpiece?

Monder and Sabbagh were fine, but this new band was all about Motian for me. He looked great, timeless. Lean and completely bald, Motian sat behind the kit with authority but calm. The music seemed like meditation for him. He listened as much as he played, but every stroke from his sticks or brushes was an emphatic statement.

As was typical of Motian over the last three decades of his art, he played very little straight “time”. Rather, he was engaged in a continual conversation with the guitar and tenor, which is to say that he was playing a conversational and independent counterpoint to his own compositions and arrangements. He played not just time and accents but contrasting and complementary melodies and rhythms, often seeming more sculptor of sound and texture than merely a “drummer”.

This was Motian’s revolution.

I had no idea that Motian was ill, suffering from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone-marrow disorder, which killed him in November 2011. Motian had seemed old, or let’s say “distinguished”, for a long time—but never less than vital. In fact, he was the rare artist who seemed to be getting larger and more varied over time. In the last few years I had seen him or listened to him in musical conversations with young players like Greg Osby and older players like Lee Konitz. He was still leading all kinds of bands, releasing new and daring music frequently, and writing new music that consistently pushed the boundaries of form without becoming formless. In the best sense, he was the most alive jazz musician on the scene.

Like Miles Davis, Paul Motian was said to use silence very effectively in his art. But 22 November brought too much.


Fifty years earlier in the same space, Motian was also playing. In June 1961, Motian appeared at the Vanguard with the Bill Evans Trio, working beside the great pianist and Scott LaFaro, a bassist who would die in a car crash just ten days later. For many fans of the art of piano trios, this is the most important day in the art—a day when Evans’ new trio recorded a series of tracks that demonstrated that a jazz group could improvise in near-perfect equipoise.

Of course, Evans works like a soloist as he states a theme and then begins creating a spontaneous melody. But LaFaro and Motian don’t settle into the background like a tame 1961 rhythm section. Lafaro bounces through a series of melodic statements of his own, not merely hewing to a four-notes-per-measure walk, and Motian engages in a remarkable bit of rhythmic shadowboxing. The groove that Motian sets up, primarily with brushes on cymbals, is infectious but continually shifting, with syncopated accented coming so frequently and cleverly that they become the beat itself.

Motian’s innovation here is in a continually improvised rhythmic counterpoint to imply a steady swing and, thus, to become a rhythmic guidepost of the music without being static.

The albums that contain this music, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, are among the essential jazz recordings in the modern era, seeming both to introduce and to perfect an idea in one fell swoop. And although Bill Evans, the leader, and Scott LaFaro, the lost, are the stars, nothing about that Sunday matters a whit if Motian is not an equal partner.

Remarkably, his playing would get better and more daring in the years to come.


Motian had a thing for pianists, or maybe they had a thing for him. After leaving Bill Evans, he joined Paul Bley in a trio that was even more adventurous if not as famous. And later in the decade he started playing with the young Keith Jarrett, who ultimately sold him a piano and got him to composing. Motian would become part of Jarrett’s bracing “American Quartet” along with saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden.

Almost any year in the early '70s would do, but 1977 finds the quartet on its last recording date, breaking up yet playing at its height. The session would (again) produce two fine records, Byablue and Bop-Be. Although Jarrett is a well-known composer and the leader of the date, Byablue contains mainly tunes written by the quartet’s drummer, Our Own Paul Motian. The passage of 16 years has changed Motian’s style considerably—he is louder and more aggressive now, with a darker tone to his cymbals and greater sense of textural variation.

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