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Forever in Motian

Editor Evan Haga introduces the March 2012 issue

Welcome to March, and to our annual collection of farewells to recently departed musicians. For this edition’s leadoff homage to the late drummer Paul Motian, I interviewed his longstanding triomates Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, which led me to do some of my own reminiscing.

I’d wanted to put Motian on the cover of JazzTimes since I joined the magazine in 2006, and in 2007, when ECM released his trio’s sterling Time and Time Again, the stars aligned. I interviewed the trio after their photo session in a Manhattan studio space, and when I try to remember that day, what springs to mind is my nervousness. Motian was over doing interviews at that point, but had made an exception for us, and the few industry types I mentioned the piece to beforehand warned me of his gruffness. That afternoon, he didn’t go out of his way to mitigate my anxiety. Before we even began, he told me about another Q&A he did in which a European critic forgot to turn on his tape recorder. He asked the drummer if they could start again, prompting Motian to request the writer perform solo an act typically reserved for couples.

Even after I’d made sure the red light was on, I knew I wasn’t talking to Billy Taylor. I asked him how his trio’s unusual bass-less format came about, to which he replied, “Oh, man, that’s an old story. I must’ve told it 100 times.” As the wheels got rolling and Bill and Joe chimed in, I realized something about Paul Motian I should have absorbed from the get-go: Despite his infallible, age-old sense of swing, he was one of jazz’s most unrelenting progressives. Of course he didn’t care to tell old stories.

Talking to Frisell and Lovano during these past weeks really brought that point home. Motian didn’t rehearse, he didn’t take sideman gigs when he was pursuing his own music, and he had a knack for finding game-changing young players to spur him on (much like our cover subject, Jack DeJohnette). For Frisell, every gig with him was an expedition into unknown territory. “[U]p until the very last note we ever played,” the guitarist told me, “I never knew what was really going to happen.”

I felt that same exhilarating sense of discovery when I heard the trio at the Village Vanguard. “I’m convinced [Motian will] redefine jazz until closing time,” I wrote in that 2007 issue’s JT Notes. I’ve never been more prescient.

Originally Published