Paul Motian: Time is There All the Time

SKF NOTE: My first awareness of Paul Motian — which might be different from when I first heard Paul Motian — was the opening song, Victoria, on his 1974 album Tribute. This haunting, beautiful song written by Paul Motian, is played by guitarists Sam Brown and Paul Metzke, bassist Charlie Haden, and Carlos Ward on alto sax.

This was a period in my life when I was first thinking a jazz drummer’s ding-dinga-ding ride cymbal and two-and-four hi-hats were outdated and unnecessarily constricting. I thought it would be great to play drumset with the fluidity of a tenor sax player.

One Amazon.com reviewer of Tribute writes, “Mr. Motian plays the most stretching, elastic, breathing drumming I have ever heard in my life…” That was my reaction on first hearing this album. Motian was one drummer who found a way out of the shackles of ding-dinga-ding and the two-and-four hi-hat.

Then I listened to Keith Jarrett‘s Byablue album with Paul Motian on drums. The one song I liked — and I loved the melody – was the title track, composed by Mr. Motian. Today I think the definitive version of Byablue is from the Paul Motian Quintet’s Misterioso album with guitarist Bill Frisell.

So when I interviewed Paul Motian for Modern Drummer I was a freelance writer, devouring every jazz book and magazine article I could find. Certainly I was aware of the innovative role of the Bill Evans Trio with Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, and on drums, Paul Motian. But I’m not sure — at that time I interviewed Mr. Motian — I had heard much of that trio’s records. My stronger point of reference was Motian’s own albums and his work with Keith Jarrett and Carla Bley’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

This exchange took place at Paul Motian’s New York City apartment circa 1979 or 1980. If you have the original Modern Drummer with this interview, I think it includes one photo I took of Motian on his drumset which, along with his acoustic piano, took up 75-percent of the room we were in.

This is where I ask Paul Motian about what seemed to be the point at which he figured out how to keep time while breaking free from ding-dinga-ding and the two-and-four hi-hat.

Scott K Fish: How did you get that gig [with the Bill Evans Trio]?

Paul Motian: That was kind of accidental too. Well, I had played with Bill alot. We played with Tony Scott together and a couple of other people. A clarinet player named Jerry Wald — years ago.

And so then, Bill — we played alot. We use to play gigs together and I use to live in the same building as Bill. And we played together a lot.

And then one day he had his trio. It was after he had been with Miles Davis, and I think he had a drummer who was Kenny Dennis. And he had a bass player too at the time.

He was playing in Midtown at a place called, I think, Basin Street [East]. Kenny Dennis couldn’t do it one night, so Bill called me.

Scott LaFaro was playng around the corner with somebody else, and he use to come by. He liked Bill a lot and he came by and sat in. It seemed like that was it, y’know? Bill liked it alot, and from there we just kept it together. We played together about two years.

MUSIC_020_Paul-Motian_JohnAbbottSKF: Somebody said that you and Scott LaFaro were responsible for freeing up Bill Evans.

PM: Yeah, I think it might have been mutual. I think it was just a thing. I mean, nobody was playing bass like that [Scott LaFaro] before. It was a freeing up too. I guess bass player played roots of chords all time, and this was the first time the bass player was playing with the pianist, and wasn’t playing that kind of bass, and I guess that freed him.

[With] myself sort of playing what I hear and fitting in with that.

SKF: It was keeping time but not in a strict sense.

PM: Yeah. I’ve really gotten away from that now. (laughs) I think that the time thing is there all the time. I don’t mean a particular pulse, but the time itself. Maybe if you took eight measures of music, and each measure was in a different pulse. Like one fast, another one is slow, and another one a ballad in each measure — but it’s all there somehow. I think that can be played without being played. All different ways.

It’s like a huge thing that says TIME, and it’s up there [gestures as if pointing to an eye chart on the wall before him] and it’s printed TIME. I mean, that’s there and you can play all around that.

SKF: Was the Bill Evans Trio the first time you played like that?

PM: I guess it was a sort of freeing up for me too.

SKF: Was it a conscious thing?

PM: No, I don’t think so. I think it was something that just happened. I’ve never thought of playing that way. I’ve never pre-thought something. It seems like it’s always been something that’s happened through the involvement in the music and the musicians.

Photo of Paul Motian by John Abbott

end

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