Friday, November 25, 2011

What we can learn from Paul Motian (if only we would listen),

I am actually so nervous as I write this I'm trembling. This has never happened before, but the matter I'm about to address is of such vast importance I feel the pressure to get this right.

Before I get into the body of this post I'd like to mention again that the loss of Paul Motian this week has affected me deeply. There's a sort of pool of melancholy that I feel underneath everything. People might read this and say, firstly, that he wasn't a young man (chronologically) and had a long and varied career. That's true, but if you look at the man's work I'm convinced he wasn't done yet and partially I'm mourning all the great music we'll never get to hear. More on that later. Also, others might say that I didn't know the man personally, had no interactions with him socially, he wasn't family. What's the big deal? I think my wife, Kate put it best when we had a similar conversation about the passing of Tony Williams (another great lost to us at one of his many creative peaks). She said "What he did touched you. and you know the hard work and sacrifice it takes to do what he did". That Kate, with that sort of sensitivity, she would have made a great musician.

What we can learn from Paul Motian, and by"we" I mean myself as much as anyone, lest people feel I'm preaching.
1. Keep looking forward
Fairly early in his career Paul Motian (with Scott LaFaro and Bill Evans) basically started a whole new approach to piano trio. If he had passed when LaFaro did, we'd still be talking about his genius. Indeed, when I saw many postings about Motian's death a lot of people mentioned this trio. Sorry folks, but that's just the beginning of this story!!!! He later stayed in New York to be a part of all the new music being made in the 60s, played with Jarrett, formed many innovative bands of his own etc. In fact, I could be incorrect on this but I believe post-Bill Evans he never made a recording as a leader with piano, and didn't perform with many pianists other than Jarrett. (The wonderful work with great Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi would be a notable exception.) Mr. Motian could have probably spent the rest of his life playing in piano trios, becoming a shadow of his former greatness (it's a sad fact that many "jazz' fans would have preferred this) but he always followed his muse...forward, not back! A great example of this are two versions of the Bill Evans tune "Five". Here's the first from Bill Evans' debut as a leader "New Jazz Conceptions". Note how much Max Roach you can hear in his playing at this point. The year is 1956.

A great, great performance. But now let's fast forward to 1990 and hearing the version Mr. Motian records with his band (Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and Marc Johnson. Johnson also played with Evans, although in a much later version of the trio with the great Joe LaBarbera.)

It's the same guy playing drums and he was almost 60 years old at the time!!!!! Talk about an evolution (or even a revolution) in one's playing and conception. New Jazz conceptions indeed. This also shows how great these people were at rubato playing, but more on that later.

2. Always be yourself.
He consistently stayed on his own path throughout his career. As was typical of Jazz musicians of his era ( he was born in 1931) the music that first touched him was bebop and post-bop. Asked who some his major influences were, he would often mention Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sid Catlett, and the like. This is not unusual. He also didn't site many of the major drumming figures that came after him (Tony Williams, Elvin, etc.) as formative influences, even though I'm sure he listened to and appreciated them. He was also quoted as not caring for Electric (fusion) Jazz or Rock music. This is also not unusual. What is unusual is he used these early influences as a basis for musics that most of the drummers of his generation and earlier (with the possible exception of Max Roach) never came near! Motian played with no tempo, played funky straight 8th grooves, and on and on. As great as some one like Art Blakey, for example, was, he never strayed too far from his hard bop roots. This is not to denigrate Art Blakey who had a mission to preserve acoustic Jazz and made a lifetime of beautiful music because of it. Motian though, seemed to have had a restless spirit and I for one am very thankful for that.

3. The drum set is ONE instrument.
Before many of the drummers usually associated with "breaking up" the time. Paul Motion was using the entire instrument as sort of "sonic generators' rather than just mindlessly playing patterns. By "Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard" he's sometimes putting the hi-hat on 1, or 3, or leaving it out entirely but never interrupting the flow of the music. He was also one of the first players to realise that the cymbal would sustain, and certain quarter notes on the ride could be left out to create more space in the music. (He would go much further with this concept later in his career.) His way of playing time never remotely suggested a "hey look at me, I'm so hip" attitude. Rather, it appeared to be part of his search for personal expression on the drum set. Here's "My Romance" from the above mentioned album as an example.

4. They won't be with us forever.
This pains and shames me to admit this, but I never got to hear him play live. I could say something like "didn't get the chance" but really I didn't make the chance. It's not like he was hard to find playing in the later years either. He stayed in New York and played often. We are fortunate to have outlets like Small's and The Jazz Room that broadcast gigs over the web, and Youtube with it's many resources. My recent experience of seeing Victor Lewis live (which I will post on in detail in the next few days) made me come to the realisation that there simply is no parallel experience to seeing musicians close up in a club. You see them, you hear them, you feel them. You experience how they change the energy in the room with the sound of the drums and the strength of their vision. Certainly it's a testament to Motian's vision that I was affected so strongly purely through recordings but I know I missed the whole picture, and that's something I will regret always.

5. Chops (in the conventional sense) doesn't necessarily mean great art.
Currently, drummers win wrestling type belts for their speed. I wonder how many of them will still be playing when they're 80. Being known in music for your speed is sort like being famous for your looks, it's not sustainable. Many of these individuals as well as some well known artists took Motian's playing to task, saying "he can't play". Certainly he was never flashy. In fact, one of the great things about his playing is you never got an empty display of technique to try and dazzle the audience. He always played the music honestly. As well he forged a completely original sound and time feel. Isn't individual expression the point of Jazz? If that's what it means when you "can't play", sign me up! I'd love to "can't play" half as well as he did!

5. Encourage and nurture young talent.
He consistently hired younger players to give them wider recognition as well as challenge him. A great example of this is the Electric Bebop band clip I posted a few days ago.

6. Get writing.
Motian came late to composing, but quickly amassed a number of beautiful, often simple, quirky tunes that often suggested folk or classical music as much as Jazz. Again, he didn't try to be anyone but himself. Here's his trio with Lovano and Frisell playing "it Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago".

It's also to important to note that this is yet another revolutionary trio he was involved in. Bass? What for?

7. Don't be afraid of sentimentality in music.
I often hear young musicians playing music that sounds like it was written with a calculator for no other reason than to prove how clever they are. If you're only goal is to be hip, there's not going to be much room to be tender and lyrical. Here's a hauntingly beautiful version of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" found on the "Paul Motian and the E.B. Big Band" album.

In conclusion, we live in a world that celebrates spectacle, of style over substance. Where people's dream of a "life in music" consists of warbling a Celine Dion tune on a TV talent show like the sonic equivalent of a summer blockbuster gone wrong in hope of becoming famous. Where so-called "jazz magazines" feature musicians who look like fashion models with instruments. (In some cases I suspect they sound like fashion models with instruments.) Where young musicians decide to confuse audiences as mentioned before, or the alternative, play the music and lecture about it like it's some museum piece, ready to be put in mothballs and stored frozen in time, harkening back to the good old days of "real jazz".
Throughout all this, for over 50 years, Paul Motian fearlessly followed his vision. Trends and critics be damned. He made music that was thoughtful, playful, joyous, and challenging. He made people laugh and cry. In short, he was a true artist. True artists are an endangered species, I'm afraid. Anyone who picks up sticks, or any instrument for that matter, owes him a debt that is incalculable. We were indeed fortunate to have him around creating truth and beauty through his drums and melodies.

God bless you Paul Motian, and rest in peace.


  1. Great blog Ted. I saw Paul Motian play at the Village Vanguard 2 years ago and it was an amazing experience. He looked like a little kid sitting at the drums for the first time, and every note he played seemed to delight him. And every note he played meant something. Incredibly simple but incredibly deep at the same time.....

  2. Thanks George and Paul. Now if only John and Ringo would comment.....

  3. Wonderful Article. We all loved Paul so much.

    I really don't mean any disrespect with this. I just wanted to clarify that Paul actually has quite a few records and has collaborated with wonderful pianists. Most notably Masabumi Kikuchi who is on a few of the Live at the Village Vanguard series and also on Trio 2000 + one, they really had an incredible rapport together. Also he collaborated with Marilyn Crispell quite a bit. And most recently did a wonderful live record called "Lost in a Dream" with pianist Jason Moran and Chris Potter. I also had the fortune of seeing him live with Jacob Sacks with whom I believe he played often as well.

    Again, with much respect,

    We all miss him dearly

  4. One of the small good things to ensue after Motian's death has been the way the web has allowed easy access to so many tributes, often from musicians. Don't think I can recall quite such an outpouring of respect, affection and appreciation for any player before. And - my reason for saying this here - of them all, this is one of the nicest I've read. Thanks.

  5. Great points, beautifully written. Thank you Ted

  6. Thanks all for the great comments and Juanma, thanks for pointing out my error and I plan to start checking out some of the recordings you've mentioned. So I'm glad I messed that up! Also, I should have mentioned his great work with Geri Allen, as well.