Paul Motian (March 25, 1931 - November 22, 2011)


Paul Motian passed away at age 80 yesterday after complications from the bone-marrow disorder myelodisplastic syndrome. In a career that exceeded five decades, Motian was one of the most respected drummers in jazz history as well as a superb composer and adept bandleader. Critic Art Lange called him "that rare commodity, an intimate drummer." And here's a bit of trivia: Motian played at Woodstock, in Arlo Guthrie's band.

Even music lovers largely unfamiliar with jazz have heard his work with pianist Bill Evans, whose trio Motian played in from 1959 to 1964. Other piano greats who availed themselves of Motian's subtly swinging sense of rhythm included Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Lennie Tristano, Mose Allison, Martial Solal, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Marilyn Crispell.

On his own records (perhaps to avoid comparisons?) he favored guitarists instead, most notably Bill Frisell. After graduating from their '80s apprenticeships in Motian's trio and quintet, Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano went on to greater fame, but kept returning to the trio; their nearly annual summer reunions at the Village Vanguard were a highlight of NYC jazz life and always found Frisell and Lovano playing in more excitingly improvisational and richly textured styles than even their superb work as leaders ever reached.

In 1988, Paul Bley told critic Royal Stokes something interesting about Motian. "[H]e's one of the few free players who very often will create a part that's not related to the person he's playing with, and in the beginning, this might be off-putting, but on the other hand, if you're playing with someone like that, who's not accompanying you, but playing a parallele part, if you decide to change direction or do something other than what you're doing, you don't have to worry about having the drummer relate to you and catch it because, since he wasn't relating to you in the beginning, if you make a left turn, you don't have to worry about whether or not he's going to follow you or not.... It's very liberating to have a player like that."

To survey his recording career, I'm going to look at his best albums as a leader, then at five major collaborations as co-leader, followed by five significant sideman gigs. Dates given are for recording rather than release. Albums fall into the co-leader category if the artist listing includes his name and he has at least one of his compositions on the program.


The Story of Maryam (Soul Note, 7/27-28/83)
Jack of Clubs (Soul Note, 3/26-27/84)
Misterioso (Soul Note, 7/14-16/86)

Motian's quintet with saxophonists Jim Pepper and Joe Lovano, electric guitarist Bill Frisell, and upright bassist Ed Schuller made quite a trifecta for the Italian label Soul Note in the mid-'80s. The first two use only Motian compositions and are treasured for that; his tunes are unique in how strong their themes are in spite of their generally unusual structures. Especially lovely is "Trieste," which he also played with Jarrett's quartet; it has a very different sound here thanks to Frisell's already distinctive guitar timbres. The third album found Motian beginning to go back to classic bebop, in particular the quirky compositions of Thelonious Monk (here, "Misterioso," which he would frequently return to, and "Pannonica"), but is still largely built on Motian tunes, including another made famous with Jarrett, "Byablue." These are three of the finest jazz albums of the '80s.

Sound of Love (Winter & Winter, 6/7-10/95)

Here's the trio with Lovano and Frisell on what came to seem like its home turf, the Village Vanguard. Playing two Monk tunes, one by Mingus, and a standard, they sound like they're having fun on an elevated level, unafraid of any risks, and if Lovano stumbles slightly at the beginning of "Misterioso," so what? -- the benefits of this approach far outweigh such passing flaws (if only Lovano could relax and play with this sort of unbridled exuberance on his own albums!). There are also three Motian tunes, and their elliptical slipperiness seems made for this context. This brings back fond memories of nights at the Vanguard listening to this group, which always reinvented Monk tunes with the freewheeling grace and energy on display here.

I Have the Room Above Her (ECM, 4/04)

When I reviewed this trio album on its release, I wrote, among other things: "All the tunes are by Motian except two. 'Osmosis Part III' sets the tone: playing an absolutely lovely melody, Lovano scales his normally big tone way back – he could be playing an alto. Frisell lays out delicate filigree around him and fills in the bassline as Motian foregoes a beat in favor of subtle, unpredictable accents and fills. The whole thing sounds so wispy, a light breeze would seemingly blow it away, yet it makes an undeniably powerful statement. 'Sketches' is slightly more emphatic, but similarly offhand. 'Odd Man Out' seems like a gentle free improvisation; then a theme appears. And then it ends. 'Shadows' also sounds like it's being spun out freshly on the spot." The rest of that review is here. All the other albums this group made are also worth owning, especially One Time Out (Soul Note, 9/21-22/87) and Time and Time Again (ECM, 5/06).

Garden of Eden (ECM, 11/04)

Motion looking back -- as he did more often in his last two decades -- at bebop masters Charles Mingus ("Pithecanthropus Erectus," "Goodbye Porkpie Hat"), Thelonious Monk ("Evidence"), and Charlie Parker ("Cheryl"), covering Jerome Kern's Showboat tune "Bill," and mixing in a bunch of Motian originals with a group that evolved from his Electric Bebop Band: saxophonists Chris Cheekand Tony Malaby, electric guitarists Jakob Bro, Ben Monder, and Steve Cardenas, and electric bassist Jerome Harris. The immediate appeal of the familiar bop tunes is contrasted with Motian's subtly probing compositions' seductively shadowy world of musical mystery that grows in fascination with repeated listening.


Enrico Pieranunzi/Paul Motian: Flux and Change (Soul Note, 8/27/92)

Recorded at the Roccella Jonica International Jazz Festival, this piano/drums duo is my favorite Motian album. It consists of three suites, each stringing together a mix of standards, compositions by each of the performers, and free improvisation; it is the perfect format for Motian's quicksilver rhythmic imagination, and also shows the unjustly neglected (in the U.S.A.; in Europe, he's duly respected) style of Pieranunzi in its most original setting. Like many of the pianists Motian worked with on an ongoing basis, Pieranunzi has a strong lyrical side; their somewhat similar Doorways (CamJazz, 12/1-3/02), with saxophonist Chris Potter joining on three of its thirteen tracks, and their trio album with Charlie Haden, Special Encounter (CamJazz, 3/6-8/03), are also highly recommended.

Charlie Haden/Motian/Geri Allen: Live at the Village Vanguard (DIW, 12/21-22/90)

This underrated trio was highly democratic; rarely have the members of a piano trio functioned as equals to such an extent. As an overall album, their first, the studio product Etudes (Soul Note, 9/14-15/87), may be slightly superior, partly because of the Ornette Coleman and Herbie Nichols tunes on the set list, but I've chosen this concert album instead because it best displays Motian's nimble playing and four of his compositions. Segments (DIW, 4/6-8/89) and the live The Montreal Tapes (Verve, 7/1/89) are the other documents of this group.

Bley/Motian: Notes (Soul Note, 7/3-4/87)

The Bley quote above is in the liner notes of this album, which is one of the greatest of Bley's long and distinguished career. All of the Bley-"penned" tracks were improvised in the studio, and though Bley, while a free player, is usually tonal, things can get pretty wild here in a quiet way, complete with Bley at one point playing the strings inside the piano instead of the keys. It's pretty exhilarating. The final track (the encore) is the standard "Diane," but it's played so elastically that one might not notice its provenance.

(Oddly, many of Bley's other albums with Motian each have a major flaw, at least to my taste. On Turning Point [Improvising Artists Inc., 3/9/64, 5/10/68], with John Gilmore on sax and Gary Peacock on bass, the material is a poor fit with Gilmore's strengths as a player; it makes him sound deracinated. A trio with bassist Charlie Haden, Memoirs [Soul Note, 7/20/90], would be better as a duo, because Haden plays out of tune so much it drives me nuts, while on their live The Montreal Tapes [Verve, 7/7/89], Haden hogs the spotlight, though it was at a festival in his honor, so at the time it made sense. On a later trio with Peacock, Not Two, Not One [ECM, 1/98] ECM's sound is weirdly flat -- especially strange since the label so often favors a "wet" ambiance -- plus there's a track where Bley somehow does something extremely off-putting with the instrument's timbre.)

Marilyn Crispell/Peacock/Motian: Amaryllis (ECM, 2/00)

Another pianist; in this context, Crispell sounds a little more restrained than she often does, but the results are absolutely beautiful. Also, this might be the best example on record of how well Peacock and Motian mesh.

Lee Konitz/Steve Swallow/Motian: Three Guys (Enja, 5/4-5/98)

Back in his early days in New York, when he was part of the Lenny Tristano circle, Motian had played with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. (You can hear some of their work on Live at the Half Note [Verve, 2/24 & 3/3/59] along with Warne Marsh, Bill Evans, and Jimmy Garrison -- quite a quartet!). This reunion four decades later is not quite ideal, since Swallow's electric bass often swamps Motian's more delicate contributions, but the musical conceptions of Konitz and Motian mesh perfectly in their dynamic restraint and rhythmic/melodic intricacy.


Tony Scott: Sung Heroes (Sunnyside, 10/28-29/59)

This is the session where Bill Evans and Motian first played with bassist Scott LaFaro! Beyond its historical importance, it's the last session the superb clarinetist Tony Scott made before leaving the U.S. to travel the world. It's an often melancholy album; many of Scott's jazz idols had died in recent years, which was part of why he left New York behind. But the results are quite beautiful and emotionally moving.

Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Riverside, 6/25/61)

This three-CD box contains the classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby LPs and a wealth of additional material. This music is a crucial component of any jazz collection. I wrote about it at length here. All of the Evans albums with Motian are gems, especially Portrait in Jazz (Riverside, 12/28/59) and Explorations (Riverside, 2/2/61), both -- like the Vanguard recordings -- with the ill-fated but influential LaFaro, who raised jazz bass from subservient status to a more melodic role.

Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Years 1973-1974 (Impulse!)

This five-CD set contains the first four albums by pianist Keith Jarrett's "American Quartet" with saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, and Motian (though augmented on all four albums by a percussionist and/or a guitarist): the live Fort Yawuh (2/24/73), Treasure Island (2/27-28/74), Death and the Flower (10/9-10/74), and Backhand (10/9-10/74); if you don't want to get the whole set, start with Death and the Flower, though all of this really is worth having. A later box compiles four subsequent Impulse! albums that collectively offer less variety than is found here. These are players with a firm foundation in the jazz verities, especially harmony, who instead of resting on those laurels take their knowledge into the "outside" regions the avant-garde was exploring -- there's an Ornette Coleman influence here, not least from his associate Redman -- and in the process lending an aura of suspense to even the most sweetly harmonic material because it could burst out into anything at any moment. Motian's off-kilter beats are a major part of lending a sense of unpredictability to the music.

The Survivors' Suite (ECM, 4/76)

Another "American Quartet" recording by Jarrett, Redman, Haden, and Motian, with no guests -- but with Jarrett doubling on bass recorder, soprano sax, celeste, and "Osi drums," whatever those are. It doesn't sound much like the group's albums on Impulse!, not only because Jarrett spends so much time not playing piano but also due to its vastly more somber mood (as befits a project inspired by the Holocaust) and two side-long tracks. On "Beginning," Motian spends more time on his toms than on anything else I've heard him play, though the grooves he sometimes lays down are still rather asymmetrical. Redman is positively majestic, the hero of the session. A unique item in the Jarrett discography, and quite rewarding.

At the Deer Head Inn (ECM, 9/16/92)

This was the first time in 16 years that Motian had played with Jarrett. Not only can't you tell from listening, Motian(with Jarrett's regular trio bassist, Gary Peacock) actually sounds better suited to Jarrett's style than Jack DeJohnette, the long-time drummer in Jarrett's "standards trio." Not that it's typical Motian; he's much more straight-ahead and driving/swinging here than normal (sounding like a bebop drummer, as he so rarely does even when exploring bebop repertoire in his own groups, though he still throws in plenty of personal touches here), which is appropriate since the program here is all standards, if one stretches the definition to include Jaki Byard's "Chandra," which certainly ought to be a standard. In his booklet note, Jarrett writes, "I think that you can hear on this tape, what jazz is all about." That might sound immodest, but it's true.

Liberation Music Orchestra: Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 4/27-29/70)

Co-led by Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, who between them did all the arrangements, on its debut this occasionally reconvening, highly political big band also included trumpeters Don Cherry (doubling on flutes) and Mike Mantler, clarinetist Perry Robinson, trombonist Roswell Rudd, tenor saxophonists Gato Barbieri (doubling on clarinet) and Dewery Redman (doubling on alto sax), Howard Johnson, guitarist/kalimba player Sam Brown, French hornist Bob Northern (also playing percussion), and of course Motian, joined by fellow drummer Andrew Cyrille on one track. Mixing songs from the Spanish Civil War and originals, plus "We Shall Overcome," it offers a glimpse of Motian in a more aggressive style than his norm, to which he adapted superbly as usual.

Martial Solal: Balade du 10 Mars (Soul Note, 3/16 & 20/98)

The greatest French jazz pianist absorbed the necessary American influences while retaining true Gallic flavor for a witty hybrid of Poulenc and Monk (whose "'Round Midnight" is heard here). This trio recording with bassist Marc Johnson mixes standards and jazz favorites with Solal originals that make a big impression. Other excellent Solal/Motian collaborations are At Newport '63(RCA Victor/BMG France, 7/11 & 15-16/63), with bassist Teddy Kotick in what, despite its title, is a studio session, and Just Friends (Dreyfus, 7/9/97), with Peacock.

For a little more about Motian, here's an interesting tribute/perspective from saxophonist Ellery Eskelin on playing with Motian. And WKCR, 89.9 FM, will be playing Motian's music all day today on a memorial broadcast. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer who most recently wrote a three-part song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo.