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.
JazzTimes.com has a comprehensive obituary.
Funeral or memorial service arrangements for Motian have not been announced.