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Artist Profile: Jazz Drummer Paul Motian


Jazz Drummer Paul Motian

March 25th, 1931 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


November 22nd, 2011 in Manhattan, New York

A Master of Cymbals and Subtlety

Stephen Paul Motian was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to parents of Armenian descent. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where he first learned to play the guitar, and later the drums. He heard the touring big bands at a theater on the edge of town, and when he joined the Navy in 1950 during the Korean War, he briefly attended the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C.

Motian’s real musical development came after his fleet was stationed in Brooklyn, New York, in 1953. He was discharged a year later, and he moved to the East Village of Manhattan, where he met musicians while playing at jam sessions. He me pianist Bill Evans in 1955, and along with prodigal bassist Scott LaFaro, the three would later redefine the piano trio.

Bill Evans, whose tenure in Miles Davis’ late 1950s sextet (featuring John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley) earned him some renown in the jazz world, asked Motian to play in his trio in the early 1960s. While Evans was the leader in some respects, Motian and LaFaro weren’t relegated to mere supporting roles. All three musicians improvised throughout a song’s form, and the direction the music took was not determined by any single player.

With Evans’ group, Motian was involved on several groundbreaking recordings, including 1961’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The ensemble’s egalitarian and improvisatory approach set the standard for the jazz piano trio, and for modern jazz playing in general.

Thanks to the exposure he received while playing with Bill Evans, Paul Motian was highly sought after in the early 1960s. During that period, he worked with Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano, and Johnny Griffin, and he even substituted for Elvin Jones for a week in Thelonious Monk’s group.

Inspired by bebop drummers like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, Motian learned to keep the pulse with his cymbals. This gave the drums a more flexible character in terms of keeping the time, and also a coloristic aspect. Motian’s experimentation with cymbal rhythms and sounds, along with his spare and imaginative style, made up his unique brand.

After leaving Bill Evans’ group, Motian played with two other legendary pianists, alongside whom Motian’s style became increasingly free and open. The first, Paul Bley, encouraged Motian to disregard form altogether, and instead focus on timbres, textures, and degrees of intensity. With Keith Jarrett, whose band Motian joined in the early 1970s after leaving Bley, he brought this freedom with an added focus on melody. Jarrett’s music inspired Motian to began composing his own music.

In 1973, Motian recorded his first album as a leader, called Conception Vessel on ECM Records. Throughout the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, Motian led several groups that featured his own compositions. His trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano became a long-term and critically acclaimed collaboration.

Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, which included saxophone, electric guitar, and electric bass, featured several young saxophonists and guitarists who would go on to become some of the most influential musicians of recent decades. Saxophonists who played in this group include Chris Potter, Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, and Joshua Redman, and guitarists include Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, and Brad Shepik.

In the years before he died, Paul Motian continued to work in Manhattan. He refused to tour, and claimed that he never even left the borough to go in to Brooklyn or New Jersey. He performed regularly at the Village Vanguard, where he liked his sound the best, either leading his own bands or simply as a sideman. Two months before his death in September 2011, he played for a week at the Vanguard with pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and saxophonist Greg Osby. Paul Motian died on November 22nd at Mt. Sinai Hospital of complications from myelodysplasic syndrome.

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