Paul Motian, drummer, composer, bandleader, and an important figure in the jazz world for over five decades, died November 22 at the age of 80.
Motian is not known for flashy rhythm inventions or wild drum solos. I think of him as more of a tai chi drummer, understanding exactly what was necessary and never tipping the scale. He epitomized what it means to react in jazz—when everyone else was wailing away, he would surprise you with just a drum brush on the edge of a cymbal. He had restraint, a delicate touch. He understood drum wisdom.
Motian cut his teeth on some of the most important records in jazz history, first in the 50s and 60s, as part of the trio with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, and then as part of Keith Jarrett’s American quartet in the 70s.
Those first decades were intense, but he worked steadily all his life. He played regularly in a working trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. In 2006, the Electric Bebop Band, with multiple electric guitars, became the Paul Motian Band. Other favoured collaborators include pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, and saxophonists Greg Osby, Christ Potter, and Mark Turner. His discography is dizzying, with over forty as a leader, and many more as a sideman—including six in 2011!
After years of intensive touring, he decided in his seventies that he preferred the sound of his drum kit at the Village Vanguard, and he stayed put in Manhattan. He was a favorite at the Vanguard, performing there many times a year with his own groups or with others. He played there in September, with Osby and Kikuchi.
Another jazz icon exits the stage. Rest in peace, Paul Motian.