Remembering Paul Motian: The Drummer Who Quietly Shook Things Up

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.

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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