RIP Jazz Great Paul Motian, 1931-2011

Dave Sumner

By Dave Sumner

on 11.22.11 in Spotlights

The jazz world mourned a great loss on Nov. 22, when legendary drummer Paul Motian passed away early in the morning at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital at the age of 80.

Motian had a distinctive sound on drums. With brush work that mimicked the rush of waves over the shore and cymbal ride patterns like the shimmering of stars, Motian achieved a delicacy on percussion that made him a favorite among musicians and listeners alike. And though the musicians he collaborated with had voices as varied as jazz is wide, Motian’s sound kept its identity even while blending in with that of his bandmates.

Motian initially made his mark as a member of the super-trio consisting of fellow jazz legends pianist Bill Evans and bassist Scott Lafaro with a series of classics like Explorations and Waltz For Debbie. A truly democratic trio where each member was able to express his voice, Motian’s understated style meshed perfectly with Evans’ subtle tinkering with the melodies of jazz standards and Lafaro’s innovative vocal approach to bass.

Later, he joined free jazz pianist Paul Bley on a series of recordings for the fledgling ECM label. Whether it was a trio rounded out with bassist Gary Peacock or a quartet album with the woodwinds of John Surman and the guitar of Bill Frisell, the experimental natures of the individual band members came together with an earthy, often introspective sound which conjures up thoughts of straight-ahead jazz.

Motian’s contribution to Keith Jarrett’s highly-influential American Quartet in the ’70s also can’t be overlooked. An odd mixture of hard-bop, gospel, free- and world-jazz fused into a series of joyously celebratory jazz albums that were highlights of that decade’s music.

But it may have been Motian’s later work that marked the heart of his contribution to jazz. His Electric Bebop Band, a throwback to ensembles like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, gave a nurturing environment for young musicians to develop their talent and technique, and saw young jazzers like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, Ben Monder and Brad Shepik come into the fold.

Motian never stopped making his imprint on the jazz form. Later recordings as part of a trio with jazz vets Bill Frisell and tenor Joe Lovano, as well as a trio of younger generation players in pianist Jason Moran and tenor Chris Potter showed Motian never really left top form, nor that his drums were any closer to losing their voice.

It is truly a heartbreaking loss.