Who was Paul Motian? A bald white guy without proper technique? Many took one look at his trademark grip, choked way up on unusually thick sticks, and dismissed him as a charlatan. His off-and-on ride cymbal, although accurate as a metronome, had a bizarre spacing in the skip beat. For those who believe jazz drumming is bound by certain parameters, Motian was the ultimate enigma, perhaps even an insult.
Yet Motian had a deep relationship to tradition. Those baseball bats were Oscar Pettiford’s idea. In 1955, at Small’s Paradise in Harlem, the legendary bassist looked over at Motian’s small sticks and said, “What are you playing with? Are you a drummer or aren’t you?” The next day Motian went out and got the biggest drum sticks he could find.
Thelonious Monk was another mentor. Both Monk and Motian have something of earlier jazz in their rhythmic feel (as he got older, Motian’s phrasing on the hi-hat sounded more and more like a drummer from the 1940s), and when Motian was about thirty, Monk gave him invaluable advice on his ride beat. At that age, most professional drummers would be unwilling to take instruction on their right arm, but Motian was still learning.
Indeed, he was arguably the most profound late bloomer in jazz history. It’s been said that Motian on the first Bill Evans album from 1956 was “Max Roach without any chops”—an unfair characterization which nonetheless holds a kernel of truth. A few years later, on famous Village Vanguard recordings with Evans and Scott LaFaro, Motian is most thrilling in what he leaves out, not in what he actually plays, although his idiosyncratic sonority is now present. Part of how he tuned his drums (open and low) was a salute to his Armenian heritage: his mother lived in Turkey as a slave from 1915-1924 before she was able to escape and make her way to the US; his grandmother was killed by Turkish soldiers.
Many drummers care about tradition and heritage. What set Motian apart was his interest in experimentation, dating perhaps to a rehearsal with modernist composer Edgar Varèse in the mid-Fifties. It was perfect for Motian when jazz broke open in the early Sixties: he would go on to be the greatest free tempo drummer of his generation. On Evans’s Trio 64, Motian comes into his own. Fiery bassist Gary Peacock has room to play anything he likes, but Motian’s ride cymbal hiccups, the kit rattles, and the bass drum thunks like Monk’s left hand. It’s not surprising that Evans began asking Motian to play softer, after which Motian quit to work with pianist Paul Bley, the passionate disciple of free jazz avatar Ornette Coleman. Their discoveries are documented on the classic albums Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Turning Point with John Gilmore.
Keith Jarrett saw Evans/Peacock/Motian live, hung out with Bley, and studied a tape of under-recorded Lowell Davidson with Motian on drums. When he formed his first trio he used Charlie Haden from Ornette’s world and Motian from Evans’s. 1967’s Life Between the Exit Signs holds up well today, especially for the breathtaking work of Haden, but Jarrett had the right idea to add tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman.
The influential Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motian quartet lasted from 1971 to 1976. All four members loved modern jazz and the avant-garde, but they also brought in diverse folklore: Jarrett was a classical virtuoso, Redman was rough-and-tumble Texas tenor, Motian was Armenian meets Jimmy Lunceford, Haden combined hillbilly music and Bach.
Only now did Motian become a composer, taking classical piano lessons a few times a week. One of the last Jarrett 4tet albums, Byablue, is almost all Paul Motian tunes. Probably Dewey Redman influenced Motian’s style. Redman played melodies in a raw and fervent way; Motian’s single-page sketches of rubato themes demand a similarly intentional imprecision. Redman’s sensational articulation of Motian’s “Byablue” is ideal. Armenia; the blues; the avant-garde: it’s all there.
Motian was irritated that interviewers always asked him only about Evans. Surely the drumming with Jarrett was more powerful. A great example is the hippie-era gospel riff “Encore A” from Eyes of the Heart. Motian knew how to play this style: he backed Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock. But instead of playing a beat, he treats the band as backdrop for his own solo. With characteristic perversity, he uses brushes, not sticks, for this cataclysmic and joyous event.
The mature Motian always played next to the ensemble, not behind it. His work with Haden and Carla Bley’s Liberation Music Orchestra was evocative and historically informed even as it rejected the conventional big band practice of setting up figures with obvious fills. During “Grandola Vila Morena” from the 1982 The Ballad of the Fallen, a 6/8 march becomes swing under Gary Valente’s shouting trombone solo. The snare activity remains “march” even though the ride cymbal is “jazz.” Haden and Motian play this 4/4 style with as much personality as the rubato burn behind trumpeter Don Cherry’s magnificent statement. Haden and Motian: one of the greatest bass and drum teams in history!
Motian’s own career as a leader took off when he left out bass entirely. On his 1984 It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago he partnered with Bill Frisell, an innovative guitarist who worked with clouds of sound, sometimes in programmed loops, and Joe Lovano, a saxophonist who knew his Dewey Redman but could also declaim a romantic ballad. Both were perfect for Motian’s disconnected-yet-connected phrases, and for a quarter century, Motian/Lovano/Frisell would be one of the music’s most important groups. I was 17 when they came to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and changed my life.
Without bass, Motian had room to become even more of a minimalist. He always had a restrained yet full-blooded approach on ballads (and I’ll put up “Blackberry Winter” of Jarrett/Haden/Motian against any more familiar Evans/LaFaro/Motian track like “My Foolish Heart” any day) 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, you need only one of those notes to recognize this drummer.
Still, Motian needed to swing sometimes, so he brought back an older feel in his 1988 album On Broadway. The first track, “Liza” was a property of Thelonious Monk, and the explosive opening drum salvo is Monkish in affect. Motian’s cycle of Broadway albums (and later standard performances with the best of his sidemen) easily hold their own with the far more celebrated Jarrett Standards Trio.
Entering his sixties, Motian seemed to emulate Monk more. His appearance became stylized, his conversation abrupt, and his playing more uncompromising. He programmed Monk’s music frequently. One night at Sweet Basil a “Brilliant Corners” was the best Monk performance I’ve ever seen.
Like Monk, he was genuinely controversial. Three important and influential musicians have flatly declared in my hearing that he couldn’t play. When the wait staff at Dizzy’s said he couldn’t swing it was written up in JazzTimes.
Motian probably relished the controversy. Certainly he did nothing to dispel it, even creating the Electric Bebop Band with multiple guitars and electric basses. Onstage, he could flout even his most famous associates, mostly for good musical reasons but sometimes out of pure contrariness. During their final gig together, the great Lee Konitz said to Paul, “Brad Mehldau and I are going to start the next song duo.” Paul replied, “No!” and began the tune with drums.
The way to deal with a genius is always: go to the genius. While Motian was still learning new music by detailed composers like Tim Berne in the Eighties, by the Nineties he had quit interfacing with anyone else’s music on any terms but his own. Bill McHenry did a good job of leading a band with late-era Motian, writing tunes that didn’t need rehearsal, hiring other musicians that understood the drummer, and playing without discussion or hesitation. Not everyone figured this out as quickly. Bobo Stenson and Anders Jormin are excellent musicians who came to grief while trying to play a set of complicated even-eighth arrangements with a drummer who ignored them. The essential “rightness” of Motian’s insolent free tempo churn rendered the precise Scandinavian charts “wrong.” While Motian told me he loved playing with conventional masters George Mraz and Ron Carter—and there were incredible moments with both—I thought both bassists could sound worried about his beat, especially at a faster tempo. (Everything was actually fine, even though the drums sounded like they were falling down a flight of stairs.)
Motian’s purity didn’t stop him from being accessible, either. Lesser-known musicians could easily share a bandstand or make a record with him, and many then got his imprimatur. Since 1991, Masabumi Kikuchi was blessed with Motian’s tireless support. Kikuchi’s solo on “The Last Dance”—from the 2006 classic Paul Motian Trio 2000 + One: On Broadway Vol. 4 or The Paradox of Continuity—seems to issue from another sphere, conceived by a solemn Cheshire cat. Live, I remember a magical piano intro to “Last Night When We Were Young” that lasted a quarter of the set, Motian listening intently the whole time. And then there was the high-energy meltdown with both Chris Potter and Greg Osby: the two virtuoso saxophonists trying to cut each other, Kikuchi moaning and even screaming in the background, and Motian pounding his toms and crashing his cymbals like a man possessed.
New York will not be the same without Motian at the Vanguard playing his crazy drums, an old man making all the straight-ahead professionals seem like squares. He did it right, because I was at the last hit with Kikuchi and Osby in September and he was still strong. Motian wouldn’t have wanted to go out sick, or sounding like less than he was. Several years ago I witnessed a gig that just wasn’t happening. Afterwards, he complained about the other musicians and I countered by noting how great his beat was under the circumstances. He told me, rather coldly, “Oh, I’m not going to fall down on a gig, man.” He never did.
I didn’t know Paul well. We played together a few times and he told me some great stories but never agreed to be interviewed. Just days before he became a full-time hospital patient, I drove him home twice from the Theurer Cancer Center, and my very last interaction was giving him Paul Devlin’s new Rifftide: The Life and Opinons of Papa Jo Jones. He was thrilled to receive it because Jones was one of his favorite drummers.
Paul was deeply interested in jazz history, and read all the biographies of major figures. I’m proud of my quote in the NY Times obit: “With Paul, there was always that ground rhythm, that ancient jazz beat lurking in the background.” It’s so true! He could be onstage with two electric guitars and two basses emitting atonal noise and contextualize with something from way back when.
A few years ago I showed him the Cannonball Adderley review of a Tony Scott record in The Jazz Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (February 1959).
The rhythm section on this record is beautiful. Paul Motian is one of the steadiest drummers around. Paul and Bill Evans work very well on this. The rhythm section plays better when Grimes rather than Hinton is the bassist because Milt’s beat is so dominant. Henry has a tendency to sit down on the beat so that it’s there when the soloist arrives.
Typically, Paul didn’t really respond at first, but six months later he said, “You took me out, man!” Perhaps because I had earned it by finding this review, he shared some stories of Bill Evans bass players that I don’t think are printed anywhere else.
It was Adderley who brought Gary Peacock to Evans’s and Motian’s attention. One night he came into the club and said, “I found your next bass player.”
Before Scott LaFaro was in the trio, the bassist was Jimmy Garrison. Paul loved playing with Garrison but Evans didn’t, saying that “everything Garrison plays sounds like the blues.”
After LaFaro died, Paul voted first for Doug Watkins—but like LaFaro, he died in a car crash. Paul then suggested Henry Grimes, but he left the scene. It was clear that while Paul loved LaFaro, he also thought Evans sounded great with an earthy bass player, an opinion that I share: my favorite Evans is on records with Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Percy Heath, and especially Garrison at the Half Note with Paul, Konitz, and Warne Marsh. (Even Teddy Kotick on the first Evans album is more to my taste than LaFaro, although I revere LaFaro on records with Ornette Coleman and Hampton Hawes.)
Paul’s future life partner, Charlie Haden—one the earthiest ever—wanted to record with Evans and Paul. Paul didn’t want to go backwards to Evans but he was willing to make an exception for Charlie; however, Evans said he had too many records in the can already. It’s too bad: a late Seventies Evans with Paul and Charlie would be fascinating to hear.
In addition to their work with Jarrett, Liberation Music Orchestra, and On Broadway, the most wonderful Haden/Motian collaboration was probably with Geri Allen. Those discs are some of the best piano/bass/drums records of the era. Allen doesn’t play like Evans, Bley, or Jarrett in the slightest, so she was able to get new music out of Haden/Motian.
I didn’t succeed in this as well as she did. After hearing me at the Dewey Redman memorial, Charlie called and I talked his ear off. That led to a few duo gigs and eventually somehow I snake-charmed Charlie, Paul, and Lorraine Gordon into a week at the Village Vanguard.
Most of the week was a thrilling experience, although I got my ass kicked pretty hard a couple of times. Probably the best selections were Paul’s tunes, pieces that pushed the three of us to the furthest spaces.
Unfortunately, Charlie insisted on playing the canonical Evans piece “Blue and Green,” a song I didn’t want to play, especially with Paul, especially at the Vanguard within sight of the black-and-white photo of Evans and Motian between sets. Charlie likes a specific kind of comping on ballads, and frequently explains this to his pianists. A few nights into the “Blue and Green” torture chamber, Paul began playing very strongly in another tempo, unrelated to Charlie’s. The bass solo began, and Charlie kept his time while Paul kept his. I panicked and quit playing. In the kitchen afterwards, Charlie began to explain yet again how he wanted me to comp. I said, right as Paul came in, “But I couldn’t understand where Paul was playing the beat!” Charlie looked at me, incredulous. “You were listening to Paul Motian? Never listen to Paul Motian!” Paul grinned and didn’t say anything.
There was some discussion of recording, but I didn’t try too hard to make it happen, because that ensemble sounded like a fanboy playing with his idols—which is just what it was, of course. On later occasions, with Paul and Reid Anderson or Larry Grenadier, the music was a bit more distinctive, mainly because Paul and I could play louder. (In his final period, Charlie was very strict about how quiet everyone sharing his stage had to be.)
A friendly bootlegger caught the second set on Friday of that week this past March. It was a night to remember, because Tim Berne and Chris Speed sat in for exciting renditions of “The Storyteller,” “Byablue,” and “Victoria.” But what comes through best on the tape may be the opening ballad.
UPDATE: Astonishingly, Guillaume Hazebrouck of Frasques transcribed the piano part. His sardonic comment was, “Next time avoid playing sextuplets or quintuplets in low register.” Guillaume must have very good ears indeed.
I started “It’s Easy to Remember” slower than Paul liked, so he changed the tempo in the first bar. He was right: his aggressive, unsentimental bangs and crashes render this performance breathless and heartbroken. He’s hitting amazingly hard on a song that most would play with brushes. I think he really loved this tune. The next couple of nights we began “It’s Easy to Remember” not with piano but with drums. Paul played a chorus of melody—loud, brisk, clear melody—before Larry and I came in. Larry and I were fine, but Paul unaccompanied on “It’s Easy to Remember” was really a complete statement. The emotion was staggeringly clear.
I hear you whisper
“I’ll always love you.”
I know it’s over, and yet,
It’s easy to remember
But so hard to forget.
The way the greatest artists live their lives can be startlingly connected to the way they make their art. Paul Motian’s telling email handle was “metamorphism.” And he wrote his emails in tiny phrases connected by ellipses, just like his rubato drumming, where there was always a direction between his soft thumps, the music continuing even though he had paused.
Two emails from Paul. The first one is about hiring Grenadier:
Hi Ethan…..yes….great….love….larry……thank you…….paul
and the final one:
hi ethan…..sorry…i have to cancel the gig in feb…i’m not well…..paul
It’s a terrible loss that Paul is gone…but….he will also continue…