THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
JULY 26, 2011
CULTURAL CONVERSATION with Paul Motian
Master of Time, Defier of Age
By LARRY BLUMENFELD
'Everything fell in my lap, sort of," said Paul Motian, sitting in an office of ECM, a music label he's been associated with for nearly half his 80 years. "I never tried to push things." Mr. Motian referred to the arc of his career. But he might as well have meant his manner of playing drums, so relaxed and unforced are his iterations of swinging time.
Whether within a trio or a larger ensemble, such as the septet he will bring to the Village Vanguard here beginning Tuesday, Mr. Motian is both a peaceful presence and a locus of swirling power. A few cymbal strikes are all he needs to indicate velocity and flow. He employs moments of silence with equal emphasis as bass-drum kicks. He distills jazz's pulses into pithy implication through rhythmic phrases that sound personal. By now, he is both eminence and enigma: Everyone wants to play with him; no one can play like him.
"What turns me on isn't technique," he said. "It's the sound of the drums, the way they're tuned. I can play one beat on a tom-tom, and that might set me off. One sound leads to another. It just grows."
Mr. Motian grew in up in Providence, R.I., listening to the odd-metered music of his parents' native Turkey on the family's Victrola, and hearing visiting swing bands. By the end of high school, he was playing stock arrangements of Glenn Miller tunes in a touring band.
After his discharge from the Navy in 1954, Mr. Motian moved to Manhattan's East Village. He studied some piano and composition at Manhattan School of Music, but quit to begin performing. Mr. Motian has kept work diaries--bandleaders, dates, fees--for most of his life. Their pages filled up early, dotted with heroic names: saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Lennie Tristano.
Some things did fall into his lap. When drummer Arthur Taylor was a no-show for pianist Thelonious Monk's date one night in the mid-1950s at a club called The Open Door, promoter Bob Reisner asked Mr. Motian if he wanted to sit in. "I ran back home, got my drums," he said, "and there I was with Monk. He paid me $10, and when he got up and danced during the set, I was never more proud." (He'd play another week with Mr. Monk, in Boston, in 1960.)
When he wasn't playing, Mr. Motian studied bebop's master drummers. "Kenny Clarke was my top choice," he said. "His feel was so swinging, yet with such little effort." He focused also on the quintet co-led by drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown. "I'd hear that band and then go home and try to do what Max did. That's what happens until you develop your own thing."
Mr. Motian's own thing began forming in a trio led by pianist Bill Evans, with, at its peak, bassist Scott LaFaro. "It wasn't a piano and rhythm section," he said. "It was three playing as one. We talked about making music that would stand the test of time." Indeed, 1961's "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" is an enduring classic. (Mr. Motian is partial to that trio's 1959 "Portrait in Jazz.") Mr. LaFaro died in a car accident in 1961. By 1964, Mr. Motian had grown disenchanted. "It seemed like I was playing softer and softer until I was barely there at all," he said. He left in the middle of a West Coast engagement.
Important as it was, Mr. Motian's work with Evans gave little indication of where his playing was headed. His style transformed quickly into something far more abstract--free, for the most part, of jazz's technical conventions and often punctuated with silences--urged on especially through work with pianists Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett. (Mr. Motian joined Mr. Jarrett's group in 1967, and stayed with him nearly a decade.)
An invitation from ECM founder Manfred Eicher to record his own project motivated Mr. Motian to buy an old piano from Mr. Jarrett, and to resume keyboard study. "Conception Vessel" (1973) announced the melodic charms and peculiar forms of Mr. Motian's own compositions, which form a good deal of his current repertoire.
"The first time I had my own band, I was 45 years old," he said. By 1984, he'd distilled a trio, with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell, from his working quintet. For nearly 30 years, this piano-free group upended notions about the trio format as breathtakingly as did Evans's group, yet in an entirely different way. "It taught me what it means to play ideas," Mr. Lovano said.
"That trio evolved beyond what I could have envisioned," Mr. Motian said. "But it has run its course." Which means an even greater focus on Mr. Motian's ever-evolving palette of ensembles--"each with its own function," he said--that fuel his relationship with two labels, ECM and Winter + Winter. His Vanguard septet this week is an offshoot of his Paul Motian Band, which features two saxophones and three guitars, formerly his Electric Bebop Band. "I originally put that band together to take bebop tunes and destroy them," he said. It has grown into a vehicle for expansive takes on his own compositions. Mr. Motian's Trio 2000, usually with bassist Larry Grenadier and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, is frequently augmented, most notably by pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, with whom Mr. Motian has found intimate rapport. (Last year's "Live at the Village Vanguard, Volume 3" offers stirring testimony.) The trio documented on last year's "Lost in a Dream," with tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and pianist Jason Moran, has since given way to one with Mr. Kikuchi and alto saxophonist Greg Osby. Two new CDs extend longstanding relationships: "The Windmills of Your Mind" features Mr. Frisell; the collective quartet on "Live at Birdland" includes alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who first shared a stage with Mr. Motian in 1957.
Mr. Motian regularly works with musicians half his age; for them, the experience is transformative. "He decided to abandon everything except his aesthetic instinct," said Mr. Potter, 40, who has played with Mr. Motian for 20 years. "That's something to aspire to." Tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, 38, who is in Mr. Motian's septet, recalled first playing with him a decade ago. "As soon as he responded musically, all my planning went out the window. What he played was so profound it demanded something different, something greater."
Several years ago, Mr. Motian swore off touring. "I simply got burned out," he said. "I haven't stepped on a plane in eight years. The truth is, I rarely leave Manhattan." He appears to have all the work he needs at home. Especially at the Village Vanguard. Mr. Motian's appearance there a half-century ago with Evans forever enshrined him at the club. Yet he's a singular Vanguard fixture in the here-and-now, on his own terms. This week's engagement will be his 12th Vanguard appearance in just the past year. He'll return in August, September and November, leading three different groups.
"It never seems like too much," Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon said, "because each time he brings in something totally different from the time before."
If there's a guiding philosophy behind Mr. Motian's playing, he cites only restraint. "After many years, I realized that less is more," he said. "And as I get older, I think even more less adds up to even more."
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.