Word arrived this morning of the death of Paul Motian. The drummer was 80. Motian was born in Philadelphia and raised in Providence. He played around New England in his teens, served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and worked with Thelonious Monk upon his arrival in New York in 1954. Motian played on Bill Evans’ 1956 Riverside debut, New Jazz Conceptions, and was a member of the renowned trio that Evans led between 1959 and ’61. Motian resisted the traditional role of the drummer as time-keeper and found an ideal match in Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro, establishing with them a manner of free-flowing interplay that became a model for modern jazz combos thereafter.
Motian worked with Evans until1964, then enjoyed productive associations with Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Charles Brackeen, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Frank Kimbrough, and other kindred spirits who shared his open, organic approach to playing songs, both standards and original compositions. As you'll hear here, Jarrett told this evening's All Things Considered that Motian's uniqueness as a drummer was based on his innate sense of composition and love of song.
Motian rarely, if ever, worked outside Manhattan in recent years, so I’m grateful that I was in the city on a number of occasions to see him play. Especially memorable were his trio dates with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden at the Knitting Factory, and with Anat Fort and Gary Wang at the Rubin Museum. I also made a point of catching a few of his appearances with Lovano and Frisell at the Village Vanguard, which seemed like a second home to him. And why not? For many years, he was the last surviving member of the Evans trio that recorded there on Sunday, June 25, 1961, one of the major datelines in jazz history.
(The Bill Evans Trio seated from left: Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans, Paul Motian)
Pianist Frank Kimbrough, who worked with Motian, wrote earlier today to say: “I loved Paul – he always did it his way, right up to the end. Two months ago he was at the Vanguard with Masabumi Kikuchi and Greg Osby – Paul, Bill Frisell and I hung out for a half-hour or so before the set, and he was full of life, and played as great as ever. We've lost a master musician/composer who never compromised his art, and who brought up a couple of generations of musicians in his many bands. Of all the musicians I've ever known, I think I admired him the most because in 30 years of hearing him play, both live and on record, and playing with him on several occasions, I never ever saw him give less than 100%, or have a bad night. He was something to aspire to.”
Here’s a filmed appearance by Motian’s 5tet at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1995 playing “What Is This Thing Called Love.” Konitz, Lovano, Frisell, and bassist Marc Johnson are on the band.
Bill Frisell offered these thoughts: "No words for what I am feeling now. Music is good. Paul Motian was a MUSICIAN. He taught me, brought me up. Pointed the way. Showed me things I never could have imagined. Led me to places of extraordinary beauty. Indescribable. Paul never let up for one second. Raising it up. Always. No compromise. Listen to the MUSIC. I am blessed to have known him."