Paul Motian, 1931-2011

It was never my intention that Rifftides be a vehicle for so much bad news, but the losses keep mounting. When a musician of Paul Motian’s importance dies, we must take notice. The great drummer succumbed to a bone marrow ailment early this morning in a New York hospital. He was 80.

Motian and pianist Bill Evans were colleagues from their days together in the Jerry Wald band in the mid-1950 and later in clarinetist Tony Scott’s quartet. When Evans formed a trio that would turn out to influence the course of jazz, he chose Motian as his drummer. With bassist Scot LaFaro, they made some of the most influential recordings of the second half of the 20th century. Motian went on to play in another significant group led by a pianist, Keith Jarrett. He collaborated with a wide cross-section of the most accomplished musicians of his time and became a leader of his own band that featured, among others, guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano.

In a Wall Street Journal appreciation of Motian last July, Larry Blumenfeld wrote:

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.

To read the entire article, go here. In an e-mail message this morning, Larry wrote:

Motian was a real person. The kind you need to meet and sit with a while to understand. And then you get up and leave, feeling better and wiser in ways you can’t yet process. Motian didn’t want to meet with me for the July Cultural Conversation piece I wrote about him for The Wall Street Journal back in July. His stalwart and wonderful publicist, Tina Pelikan, finessed my way in. Motian told me up front how unhappy he was with his decision to do another interview. (“What haven’t I said yet?”) Then, two hours later, I could scarcely get him to stop his soft-spoken, stop-start, painterly flow of words, which were not entirely unlike his drumming.

Motian’s mastery of time and his nexus of subtlety and power gave him the flexibility to be equally effective in free jazz and structured music. Here, he leads his 5-Tet at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland in 1995 with Frisell, Lovano, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and bassist Marc Johnson. has a comprehensive obituary.

Funeral or memorial service arrangements for Motian have not been announced.

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  1. says

    I had the pleasure of playing for a month with Paul in Zoot’s quartet at the Atlantic House in Provincetown MA back in 1960, and of course, I heard him many times with the Bill Evans trio. He was a sweet, smart, sharp witted man, and I enjoyed being with him very much. He had a long and fruitful career. I’m very sorry to hear he has left us.

  2. John Birchard says

    To my mind, Riverside’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard, featuring the Bill Evans Trio with Motian on drums and the soon-to-be-gone Scott LaFaro on bass, stands as a suitable monument to all three—the most significant musicians of their generation. Not many can say that they have set in motion an entirely fresh way of making music…but Motian, LaFaro and Evans could, without fear of contradiction.

    • Mark Mohr says

      I would agree with John Birchard. “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” may be the Mount Rushmore for these three wonderful musicians. As Doug pointed out Tuesday night, WKRC honored Motian with 24-hours of his music. I listened off and on to the first two hours, and was reminded what a true classic that session was. The music was as intriguing and captivating as the very first time I heard it.

  3. Jim Williams says

    Perhaps Paul Motian’s death will cause some analyst of the music to re-assess Motian’s role in the trio with Evans and LaFaro. While I haven’t read every single thing written about that trio (just most of it), I have always had a sense that Motian recieved short shrift as writers concentrated on Evans and LaFaro.

    To twist a Desmondism: “How many were there in the Bill Evans Trio?”

    • says

      That trio was the first group I heard where the time was so understood among the three players that none of them had to be explicit in laying down the beat. As soon as Paul saw what Scotty was up to, he matched him perfectly by inventing a style of playing that always implied the time, but danced around it in a new way. The three of them really invented something special together.

  4. says

    When I met Paul Motion in Cologne’s Stadtgarten Concert Hall (he played there with his “Electric Bebop Band”), I talked to him after the concert. He wore one of those “Turkish”-looking beanies. And the way he’d held his sticks, he really looked like a dancing Turk. — I asked him quite naively if his ancestors came from Turkey, without being aware that this was quite an offense to an … Armenian! (Now I know of course about the genocide in the early 20th Century, and that a lot of Armenian people immigrated to the US.)

    Before that, my friend Axel Dörner and I dared to ask if we could sit in ’cause we knew all those tunes by heart. The band didn’t play very inspired during the first half of the concert. They sounded a bit tired (jet lag?).

    But you should have heard that band *after* the intermission! Now, they really played great. — Maybe, Paul told his musicians that some local cats wanted to sit in? — He came to me after the concert and asked: “Hey, do you still wanna sit in? It was a completely different band after you’d asked us to sit in.” Short pause: “A completely different band!”, he repeated with a broad grin.

    I gave him one of my demo tapes, and saw him some months later, again in the Stadtgarten, and also with the very same band. He remembered me immediately, and said – again with this impish smile: “Your band sounds great …but you can’t sit in.”

    R.I.P. Paul Motian