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
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.
RUBY MY DEAR > OLIVIA’S DREAM
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.
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.
FIVE MILES TO WRENTHAM
Paul Motian Quintet
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.
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.
RUBY MY DEAR
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.
> 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 Jazzblog.ca
> 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.