Paul Motian (1931-2011): An Appreciation

Drummer Paul Motian, who first came to prominence in the late 1950s with pianist Bill Evans’ pioneering trio, has died. A representative from ECM Records confirms he passed at 4:52 a.m. in New York City. A cause of death has not been disclosed. He was 80. After this groundbreaking association with Evans, Motian later collaborated with pianists Paul Bley (1963-64) and Keith Jarrett (1967–76). An eclectic artist, he also worked with Arlo Guthrie in 1968-69, a stint that included a performance with the folk singer at Woodstock. Later, Motian become a composer and bandleader, producing a number of well-regarded projects for ECM Records beginning in the 1970s. He had, since the early 1980s, also led a celebrated trio featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. We remember Motian today by going back to one of his most productive later periods …

The release of Garden Of Eden brought the count of records featuring Motian’s work in 2006 to four, previous albums being I Have The Room Above Her, Bobo Stenson’s Goodbye, and Enrico Rava’s Tati. All of this from a man who was, at that point, about to turn 75 years old. Incredible. The stereotype that creativity can only peak early in adult life was pretty much being shattered by Motian’s latter-day pace.

You might think that somebody working early on with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans would have nowhere else to go. Not so.

If pressed to employ a single word to describe Motian’s style of drumming, I might use ‘sparse’ … but that’s missing a whole lotta something. Perhaps a better word is: aware. Aware of the composition, aware of other band members (both as individuals and as a group), and most important: aware of time. Sure, a role of the drummer is to keep time. In Motian’s case, time is kept as an unseen border, a sort of musical spline finding its way through the other elements.

Always one to avoid convention, Motian formed his Electric Bebop Band back in the 1990s. While the material was bop-ish, the lineup, a piano-less group with two saxes and two guitars, was anything but. Paul’s band in 2006 had gone to three guitars. Traditional? Obviously not. A new standard? Just maybe.

It’s interesting to hear where this group takes the opening material on Garden Of Eden, Charles Mingus’ “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” While fairly dark in coloration, there are some inspired bits, including multi-instrument unison runs, tenors circling each other, and a kind of guitar “group comping,” with guitars switching between rhythm and lead parts. I might tend to overuse the word “texture,” but here it is the perfect word.

As much as I love the introductory Mingus tunes and the closing pair of Monk’s “Evidence” and Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl,” it’s the original material on Garden Of Eden that put the alchemy of this band on full display. The openness of “Mumbo Jumbo,” with its extended musings on the intro riff, brings to mind early Bill Frisell (bassist Jerome Han played on Frisell’s Rambler. Small world!) The slightly behind the beat guitar kicking off “Balata” somehow gives the song a very contemplative vibe. The saxes on “Endless” tug back and forth while the guitars stretch out the chords, fill in the cracks with chimey notes, and otherwise do their best to make the tenors sound great.

And, all the while, Paul Motian’s drums binds everything together in the most musical of ways on Garden Of Eden. In fact, this recording is one that perfectly illustrates how music, not just rhythm, can emanate from the drummer’s chair. This is no more apparent than on the title track. Saxes trade parts, guitars fade in, drop a phrase or two and leave … and Motian provides something new during each and every measure. It’s not unusual for a jazz drummer to be tuned in to his bandmates. It’s quite another thing to make it seem so damned easy.

Paul Motian’s Garden of Eden was — and is — the kind of record to be played for the skeptical, “there’s nothing good out there anymore” type. This music takes a lifetime of experience and cooks it down to a nice, rich and tasty jazz reduction. In that way, it’s the perfect tribute to Motian.

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Here are other recommended albums from the late Paul Motian. Click through the album titles for more details …

BILL EVANS – PORTRAIT IN JAZZ (1959): What transpired in these sessions marked the beginning of a fatefully brief but historically important eighteen month period in which these three men made an immense impact on the piano trio format. Never before had a trio played so tightly together and freely at the same time. While the leader at the piano remained more than equal than the other two, the role of the drummer and bass player grew enormously in stature. It’s as if the whole trio concept took a quantum leap on those final days of the 1950s.

BILL EVANS – SUNDAY AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD (1961): A must-have second look at what may be Motian’s most important recording. Forty-seven years after this fateful live performance, producer Orrin Keepnews overhauled the original Sunday tapes with a 24-bit remastering treatment courtesy of Joe Tarantino. The resulting sound brought some much needed clarity to the recordings, and seems to accentuate the remarkable group interplay even more. Additional takes of “Gloria’s Step”, “Alice And Wonderland,” “All Of You,” and “Jade Visions” have been tacked on to the end of the original track sequence, as well.

PAUL MOTIAN QUINTET – JACK OF CLUBS (1985): A huge find. Motian employed two saxes (Joe Lovano, Jim Pepper), bassist Ed Schuller and Bill Frisell (before he was really Bill Frisell, if ya know what I mean). OK, that’s not quite right about Frisell. He does use a volume pedal to get that attackless sound. Motian ties it all together with interesting compositions and supremely melodic drumming.

PAUL MOTIAN – I HAVE THE ROOM ABOVE HER (2005): Though Motian has at times branched out into more “out” music as compared to the Bill Evans Trio, it is his sound on those Evans records that shines through to this day. I Have The Room Above Her again featured Frisell and Lovano on a program of mostly Paul Motian compositions, plus a pair of covers: a very cool take on Monk’s “Dreamland” and the Kern/Hammerstein title track. Several of the tunes, most notably “Osmosis” (parts III and I), “Shadows” and “Harmony,” fully illustrated Motian’s way of dancing around the composition. It’s just amazing what the man can do with a pair of brushes, a snare and a single ride cymbal.

GRDINA, PEACOCK AND MOTIAN – THINK LIKE THE WAVES (2006): Gordon Grdina takes the “normal” (as if Gary Peacock and Paul Motian might ever be described in that way) guitar-based jazz trio and moves it in a slightly different direction by at times replacing the guitar with the fretless, Middle Eastern oud. The results are both subtle and stunning.

PAUL MOTIAN TRIO 2000 + 2, LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD VOL. 1 (2007): When you put the words “Paul Motian” and “Live At The Village Vanguard” together, most jazz fans can’t help but to think of of the time this legendary drummer played at that very venue one magical Sunday in June, 1961. But there were many other enchanted moments spent there by Motian, including a couple of dates in 1995 with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano (Sound Of Love and At The Village Vanguard). Here’s a valuable document of a gig he did there with his Trio 2000.

PAUL MOTIAN/ JOE LOVANO/ BILL FRISELL – TIME AND TIME AGAIN (2007): The joy in listening to a group like this, of course, is in listening for the interplay. These guys are at the tops of their game and have worked with each other so much that they just know what’s coming next. On top of that, listening to Paul Motian drum is an otherworldly experience, for he rarely simply plays rhythm. Rather, he plays color for the other two to dip into.

PAUL MOTIAN TRIO – LOST IN A DREAM (2010): In keeping with the Motian ethos, mood and instinct are the dominant themes in these group of songs all penned by Motian, except for Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” The melodies don’t follow normal structures, they each meander around some vaguely identifiable core. It creates the right atmosphere for impressionistic, seraphic expressions. In a way, in fact, Motian comes full circle back to his time with Evans and LaFaro.

AUGUSTO PIRODDA WITH PAUL MOTIAN AND GARY PEACOCK – NO COMMENT (2011): Motian, since his days in the sweepingly influential (if sadly short lived) Bill Evans Trio, has typically preferred to play with similarly constructed musical amalgams — that is, those that blend the delicately orthodox with the sympathetically atonal. Same here, as Motian continues to employ a remarkable range of movement, sounding at times folksy and at others stirringly angular.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • http://www.yelenamusic.com Yelena Eckemoff

    Thank you, Mark, for this article about Paul Motian! So freshly written, informative and appropriate… and so useful with the CD-links and references.

  • http://jukeboxdelirium.wordpress.com/ Denis McGilvray

    Sad to hear the news of Motian’s passing – he was truly one of the greats. I pulled the Garden of Eden disc off the shelf to listen to after I heard about his death. Such a beautiful record. Few players have had such an immensely varied career as Motian and he will be missed. Thankfully, as you summarize here, he left us an amazing body of work to remember him with…

  • Nuria

    Loved the man and his music. So sad.