Paul Motian, the drummer, composer and bandleader who has died aged 80, was one of jazz’s great listeners. He reacted to the most subtle changes in a soloist’s phrasing and altered his playing accordingly. Sometimes a simple backbeat was the first casualty of this approach, making him a very popular drummer in the free jazz/avant-garde movement, but mainly people loved to work with him because he always served the music. He was more interested in dynamics than technique, coaxing a myriad of tones from his trusty ride cymbal with a sound almost as recognisable as other ride masters Billy Higgins or Tony Williams. In the second half of his career, Motian also became a composer of great worth, offering challenges to improvisers of the calibre of Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Keith Jarrett, Greg Osby and Chris Potter.
Paul Motian was born in Philadelphia to Armenian parents. He moved to Providence, Rhode Island when he was very young and at the age of 19 joined the US Navy’s school of music in Washington, DC, where he served until being discharged in 1954. Motian then immersed himself in the thriving New York jazz scene, quickly landing work with the likes of Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Warne Marsh, Zoot Sims and Mose Allison.
A more permanent gig was accompanying pianist Bill Evans with whom Motian appeared on New Jazz Conceptions in 1955 and Portrait In Jazz in 1959. Also featuring bassist Scott LaFaro, the albums marked out new territory for the jazz piano trio with the rhythm section taking a floating, elastic approach which left plenty of breathing space. Along with Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby, these records continue to exert a huge influence on musicians today including Brad Mehldau and Marcin Wasilewski.
Motian continued to explore the outer limits of the piano trio when he joined Paul Bley’s band in 1962. His work now more openly embraced the avant-garde movement, and he once said: ‘All of a sudden, there were no restrictions, not even any form. It was completely free, almost chaotic.’ Bley has said that he found a kindred spirit in Motian – ‘He knew that what he did in the past was not the answer. What he lived for was growth and change.’
Motian hooked up with Keith Jarrett in 1967 in another highly exploratory trio with bassist Charlie Haden. Again, the music called for much more than ‘standard’ jazz drums, with Motian often reaching for some bells or a tambourine to accompany Jarrett’s piano, flute and percussion. This was highly emotional, very spare music, where every note counted. The addition of saxophonist Dewey Redman to the band necessitated a change of focus, and Motian could sometimes even be heard laying down minimalist funk grooves on ‘The Rich (And The Poor)’ or ‘Treasure Island’.
Motian also began to compose during his tenure with Jarrett, leading to his first solo album Conception Vessel in 1972 (the title track an extraordinary duet between Motian and Jarrett). Throughout his solo career, he enjoyed the support of two highly influential producer/label owners, Manfred Eicher of ECM Records and Stefan Winter of Winter & Winter. He used a ‘stock’ company of players on his solo projects including guitarist Bill Frisell, bassists Marc Johnson and Charlie Haden, pianist Geri Allen and saxophonists Greg Osby, Mark Turner, Joe Lovano and Chris Potter.
In later years, Motian didn’t travel, preferring to stay in New York City where he frequently performed at the legendary Village Vanguard club, his shades and huge grin a regular fixture. He played there as recently as September, accompanied by Osby and pianist Masibumi Kikuchi.
Right through the ‘90s and 2000s, Motian continued to release influential solo albums and make high-profile guest appearances such as his thrilling contribution to John Patitucci’s One More Angel and also the recent Live at Birdland with Lee Konitz, Mehldau and Haden.
Motian revealed in 2008 (in an interview for Ben Ratliff’s excellent book ‘The Jazz Ear’) that throughout his career he had fastidiously noted every single professional gig and how much he was paid for each, tracing a remarkable life in music spanning eight decades.
He is survived by his sister, Sarah McGuirl.
Paul Motian, drummer, bandleader and composer, born 25th March 1931, died 22nd November 2011.