Paul Motian – Songwriter Drummer

Paul Motian (Photo courtesy ECM Records)

SKF NOTE: Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts described his first hearing of jazz pianist Bill Evans’s early 1960s trio as a group where no one, including drummer Paul Motian, served as timekeeper. Instead, observed Watts, he heard and felt the trio-as-one playing loosely in time.

In the mid-1980’s, Motian’s no-time/time playing first attracted me to his drumming. Before I first heard Motian with the Evans Trio, I listened to his albums Dance (1977), and later, his debut ECM album, Conception Vessel (1972).

I was already exploring ways of drumming outside the restrictive ding-dinga-ding ride cymbal, and hi-hat on beats two and four. Examples I’d heard of “free” drumming were interesting, but not exactly what I had in mind.

Motian’s drumming on Conception Vessel and Dance, a mix of color and swing, attracted my attention. Although, on the first several hearings I didn’t fully understand Motian’s musical concept, I always liked the overall sound and feeling of his music.

But, what truly cemented by admiration for Motian’s musicianship was his beautifully written song, Byablue, on Keith Jarrett’s album of the same name. Motian plays drums on the album, the last album by Jarrett’s “American Quartet.”

Of the two versions of Byablue on the album, my favorite is the shorter “Alternate Version,” memorable for its focus on Jarrett’s acoustic piano playing.

When I interviewed Paul Motian for Modern Drummer, I was equally curious about his songwriting and drumming. He had a beautiful five-piece black drumset in his apartment. MD used a couple of my photos with Motian’s interview in the April-May 1980 issue. I think the set was Slingerland, with a spare wooden snare drum (snares off) serving as a second mounted tom-tom. Typical of Motian’s sound, his drums had, at best, minimal padding. I remember them as wide open.

What I recall most of the songwriting portion of the interview is that Motian sat at the acoustic piano in his apartment, asked me to turn off my tape recorder, and then played me a sketch of a new song.

Motian finished playing his song and said he intended to bring it to a Jarrett recording session. “Keith will play the shit out of it,” he smiled.

March 25 was Paul Motian’s birthday. Hard to believe he’s been gone 12 years. A great player, I discover new aspects of Motian’s music to love time and again.

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