Love of Sound: PAUL MOTIAN, 1931-2011

He was always there. Like a trip to Liberty Island, a ride on the Cyclone, or a visit to the Frick Collection, there are things a New Yorker believes he should definitely get around to checking out, at some point. There would always be time to see Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard. After all, he was always there. His seeming ubiquity made news of his death hit all the harder. He won’t always be there? The fuck is that? Also: he was eighty?

Many extremely fine tributes have been written to celebrate the life and musical legacy of Motian; we cite a bunch below. It was as if the very ineffable qualities of his time-keeping forced attempts at coming to terms with just what he had wrought as a player and composer. Of course, “keeping time” was really the last thing he did. Instead, he limned time; he pushed it around; he avoided the subject altogether.

Fortunately, as we reviewed Motian’s extensive discography, it became apparent that by dint of his various bandmates (Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett), associated label honchos (principally ECM’s Manfred Eicher and Winter & Winter’s Stefan Winter), and NY home base (Vanguard), his recorded output is almost unparalleled and remains widely available. We will crowd-source individual favorite albums (one of ours: Sound of Love) in the comments, and in place of any hard to find items here highlight some special bootleg performances.

Paul Motian Trio
Hamburg, 2008.02.23

PM, drums; Joe Lovano, tenor sax; Bill Frisell, guitar.

Motian’s outstanding band, and likely his most enduring sound. Three equal partners in melody, mood, in motion.

Here’s Ethan Iverson on Motian:

Without bass, Motian had room to become even more of a minimalist.  He always had a restrained yet full-blooded approach on ballads but now his out-of-time work could also be a line drawing.  As Frisell’s guitar resonated, Motian played a cymbal.  Then a bass drum. Then two snare attacks, followed by more silence.  In a blindfold test, only one of those notes was needed to recognize this drummer.

Paul Motian
Village Vanguard, NYC, 2010.08.28 (late set)

PM, drums; Mark Turner, Tony Malaby, tenor sax; Bill Frisell, guitar.

Iverson in his post also points out Motian’s many connections to the jazz canon. He was particularly attached to the Monk songbook. This performance of “Ruby, My Dear” features Turner and Malaby in a rare substitution for Lovano. Have your hankies ready.

Here’s saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh on Motian, via Peter Hum’s blog at the Ottawa Citizen:

Paul was a master in every way but perhaps most strikingly, he could suggest and imply things while not having to play them outright. He could evoke moods, tempos, feelings, with one or two brush strokes and maybe the sound of his hi-hats closing once. His knowledge of the music was so thorough, and his musical instinct so keen, that sometimes, it felt to me as if he was having a conversation with the past while shaping the present in a profoundly vital way. It never felt artificial, it’s just that he was hearing so much, that he was aware of the implications of everything everyone played on stage.

Paul Motian Quintet
Bremen, 1983.11.17

PM, drums; Joe Lovano, Jim Pepper, tenor sax; Bill Frisell, guitar; Ed Schuller, bass.

Motian learned piano while with Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, as a means toward composing. His songbook is filled with memorable lines, as befits the most melodic of drummers. One of our favorites is this song, a track that first appeared on a Soul Note album called The Story of Maryam, from about this time.

Here’s Hank Shteamer (himself a drummer) on Motian:

Listening to Paul Motian was, for me, remembering that jazz could really be—and not just in an aphoristic way—about constant surprise. Especially as a drummer, I relished the sense of bafflement his playing imparted. The logic behind what he was doing, the “Why?” of it was rarely clear to me. All I knew was that Motian never went on autopilot; he responded honestly, directly, instantaneously, at the risk of sounding obtuse, awkward, or, on the other end of things, at the risk of sounding utterly weightless. He was a ghost of a drummer, phantomizing the music. At his best, he seemed to bring everyone into this mindset, to slow down their metabolism, to resensitize and hypnotize them. Sitting there, inscrutable behind his ever-present sunglasses, he’d swing the watch in front of your eyes and you were entranced, even scared a little by the sensation of anti-gravity. He’d proceed up the route ahead of you, confiscating the road signs, and you were that much more attuned to each little signal.

Paul Motian
Monk in Motian
JMT : 1988

PM, drums; Geri  Allen, piano; Joe Lovano, tenor sax; Bill Frisell, guitar.

Not a boot, but harder to find, still, and our first intro to Motian. The title, while a not-very-good pun, nevertheless suggests the way the history of the music harbored itself in Motian’s bloodstream.

Here’s pianist Dan Tepfer on Motian:

In the end, when I think of Paul, the first word that comes to me is ‘truth’. In his way of playing music, and generally in his way of being, with pretending not ever being an option, he exemplified truth. I think that’s why people couldn’t help loving him: truth cuts across all cultures and religions; we know it when we see it. To see such a consistent source of truth disappear from the world is hard to bear.

The second word that comes to me is “badass”.

Motian will always be there, thankfully. We can hear it, always. RIP Paul Motian.

& & & & &

There are many more worthwhile tributes and essays on Motian, chief among them Ben Ratliff’s listening session with him from 2006. It formed the basis of the chapter on Motian in Ratliff’s book The Jazz Ear.

See also:
> Jon Wertheim, at Nextbop
> Ted Panken, at his blog
> Howard Mandel, at his blog
> Steve Futterman, at The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk
> Peter Hum, working overtime at
> Photog John Rodgers, at NPR’s A Blog Supreme, reflects on his friendship with Motian
> WFMU’s Doug Schulkind devoted an hour-long show to Motian
> And on Doug’s selfsame Give the Drummer Radio stream, D:O did a 3-hour program of Motian’s music

Please let us know of any solid encomiums we missed, along with favorite Motian performances, in the comments.

Discussion9 Comments Category Paul Motian, tributes Tags , , , , , , , ,

9 Responses to Love of Sound: PAUL MOTIAN, 1931-2011

  1. Perfect use of that Eva Hesse piece.

    RIP Mr. Motian.

  2. Thanks for the links and the pleasing aural slices of the musical mind of Motian. No one else plays (or played) the way he does (did) and his work always elevates the work of those around him.

    There are so many examples of his splendid work that it may take a while before we truly realize he won’t be in NYC making the world better for lovers of music.

  3. Thanks for the Motian memorial. The first two tracks are live, unreleased, I take it…

    On WTJU, Charlottesville, we’ve been playing a lot of Motian recently. Streaming shows available for the next week. Check it out at>Streaming>Tape Vault. Two shows that featured a lot of Paul were Anything Goes (1.5 hours) and All That Jazz.

  4. There are so many great recordings by and with Paul Motian, among them a lot of breathtaking piano-trios and among those piano-trios the most special is perhaps Tethered Moon with Masabumi Kikuchi (p) and Gary Peacock (b): The recordings those three magic musicians did for the German label Winter & Winter are really something else …

  5. can’t…stop…listening to motian!

    i love his 2006 ECM gem, “garden of eden” as well as last year’s “lost in a dream.”

    also been spinning some of his more rare sideman stuff like kenny davern’s “unexpected” with steve lacy & steve swallow; tom harrell’s “form” with charlie haden, danilo perez & joe lovano; paul bley’s “with gary peacock”; and “turning point” with bley, peacock & john gilmore.

    long live paul motian!

  6. I wonder what will happen to Paul Motian’s unpublished autobiography.

  7. Too often when a great musician passes, I stop and think “I haven’t listened to him in a while.” But I never stopped listening to Paul Motian’s music, and had been quite a bit during the past few weeks. His playing always fascinated and mystified me: how could he do so much with so little? And as one of your quotes said, you could recognize his sound immediately. I’d second the recommendations for “Garden of Eden” and “Lost in a Dream,” and among the early solo records I especially like “Tribute.” One of his loveliest sideman appearances is on Keith Jarrett’s “At the Deer Head Inn.”

  8. It’s the Paul Motian Trio that did it to me- the beautiful songs that unfolded like a flower in bloom, the cry of Charles Brackeen’s soprano and the space and implications of every sound and non-sound, full of meaning and mystery. Like life itself.

    In the lat 1970’s, I went to a short-lived club in midtown NYC to hear a double bill of the Dewey Redman Quartet and the Archie Shepp Quartet. I arrived early, to find the place, and Motian , all alone, was unloading drums from a car. I gave him a hand then headed out to grab some food. I returned for the gig and, at the end of the night, asked for my bill for a 3 or 4 beers. The check was already paid by Motian.

  9. Thanks for putting this page together D:O.

    I’ve been listening to Paul for several years, first via Keith Jarrett’s ‘Birth’ album. Now that CD was an extraordinary collection of songs. And listening to Paul changed things for me big time!

    I decided to make the trip to NYC to hear Paul. Wait… it was a pilgrimage, that just HAD to be made, despite the stress of booking flights and accomodation, then the NYC floods at the end of August 2011 almost killed the trip flat. But I made it, from my home in the west of England to NYC and I heard Paul’s ‘New Trio’ (with Jerome Sabbagh and Ben Monder) on the 2nd and 3rd September 2011. Not only was NYC beautiful but Paul, Jerome and Ben played such extraordinary music.

    On the Saturday night, I got talking to a double bass player from Texas; I can’t remember the guy’s name, maybe it was Jacob… well, if you’re reading this then “Hey there!” Well done for understanding my ‘West Country’ accent! So, we were both there to hear Paul for ourselves and agreed it was a f**king mindblower. I leaned over to Paul at the end of the second set on the Saturday night and said, “Mr Motian? Thank you very much!”. He replied “Thank you.”

    I was genuinely upset to hear of the great man passing in November 2011. I can’t believe I really went to NYC and heard him play. Rest in peace Paul.

    Regards to fellow admirers of the Mighty Motian! Does anyone know if his music in available as sheet music?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>