Remembering Paul Motian

Sam Lewin

We lost a lot of great jazz musicians in 2011. In December alone, the multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers and the composer Bob Brookmeyer died.

All of these musicians deserve to be remembered, and there are a number of places online where you can listen to their music and read about their lives. Feel free to send me an email (lewins@lawrence.edu) if you’re interested.

In this column, however, I’d like to focus on Paul Motian, a legendary drummer who died in November 2011. Motian had a profound effect on me personally as well as the jazz community more generally.

By now, Motian’s impressive accomplishments and discography have been well documented by the jazz blogoshpere. He played with Bill Evans’ revolutionary piano trio in the late 1950s and early 1960s and propelled Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet with his staggered yet swinging ride cymbal pulse in the 1970s. In the second half of his career, Motian made what are arguably his most significant contributions. Leading a plethora of groups that cleverly mixed Motian originals with jazz standards — most notably Thelonius Monk tunes — Motian and his mostly younger bandmates made some seriously swinging and innovative music.

I had the pleasure of seeing Motian play on three different occasions: twice with his trio with Bill Frisell on guitar and Joe Lovano and sax, and once with a new trio, featuring Ben Monder on guitar and Jerome Sabbagh on sax.

Watching Paul Motian play live was always an incredible experience. Even in his old age, Motian channeled the energy of a five-year-old and obviously treasured the experience of hitting the drums. While he often looked as though he was playing without any “technique” — and is all too frequently criticized for doing so — this was actually just part of his unique style.

Whenever I watched him play live, it was clear that every nuance he played, whether “in time” or “out,” was rooted in a deep sense of swing.

The trio with Lovano and Frisell was particularly awesome. My friend recorded one of the trio’s concerts at the Village Vanguard about two years ago, and I’m always thrilled to listen back to the bootleg. The concert featured a trilogy of Monk tunes and some typically thrilling improvisation.

Fans regularly hollered during burning solos and saluted each soloist with deafening yells. When they demanded an encore after the gig, Motian walked on stage and said in his characteristically dry manner, “Sorry, but we forgot the music.”

Unfortunately, my friend’s audio recording didn’t quite pick up on Motian’s fashion sense; the renowned drummer was wearing a bright orange cloak, a large gold medallion and oversized sunglasses.

The last time I saw Paul Motian was in early September 2011. I was fortunate enough to sit about three feet from his drum set and was awestruck for the entire set. He played very aggressively, only picked up his brushes once and showed that even in his old age — he was 80 at the time — he was still making some of the most invigorating music of his career.

So Motian’s death approximately three months later came as a surprise to me, to his other fans and even to some of his friends. He was probably the most creative musician I’ve ever seen live, and it’s sad that we won’t be able to hear him create anymore. However, Motian’s influence on the music and our lives is here to stay.

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