Paul Motian, R.I.P.

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."


  1. Anonymous says

    Especially in light of Tom's statement that Paul hardly ever ventured out from Manhattan, it seems noteworthy to mention that he was actually here in Amherst  — at UMass, as part of a panel discussion sponsored by Orchard Hill Residential College. The event was held at the Grayson dormitory lounge, sometime around 1971-2. The other panel members were Nat Hentoff, and the young Peter Scheldahl, then doing art reviews for the NY Times (now at the New Yorker). The general topic was "Art and Society", and if memory serves me Harry and Semenya McCord were involved.  Paul was relaxed, seemd loose and free,  seemed to enjoy the company and the atmosphere, and though I don't remember his saying a lot — with "shpritzers" like Hentoff and Scheldahl there wasn't much room — it was clear that he didn't need to  — his quiet presence attested to the work he'd already done in liberating time from old patterns — not much more he had to say about it and it's reflection of social change and impact on it.  I value the chance we had back then to experience him in this non-performance way. We later  invited Keith Jarrett to join us for an afternoon of conversation — it was a different time, but Keith jumped at the opportunity to come and talk with students about the music. It was one of our most successful porograms, which included performances by Jaki Byard, Eubie Blake, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Garrison, Charles McPherson, Barry Harris, Reggie Workman, Gary Burton, Alice Coltrane, Michael White, Pharoah Sanders,  Webster Lewis, Alan Dawson, and Larry Coryell.


    Allen Davis

  2. Tom Reney says

    Thanks so much for your note and for all you do – that's a lovely blog – feel free to add the statement from Keith below:

    Paul was one of a kind: a musicians' drummer who thought about the music, not just the rhythm, and cast his own sound on everything he played. But he could play anything, and with anybody. He was committed to his work, and didn't stop learning as he grew older. When he wanted to start writing music, he learned how to write. Once, while playing at the Vanguard, I heard a crash, looked up, and Paul wasn't there at his drums; but coming from behind his drums was his arm, reaching for the cymbals so he wouldn't miss a beat. He had fallen off the drum stool in his musical excitement, but never stopped playing.  

    Keith Jarrett

    All best,

    Tina Pelikan/ECM

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