“One time I did an interview in Germany with this guy, and he had a machine like that one, and we talked for an hour-and it was a great interview. And I got up to leave and he said, ‘Oh, Mr. Motian, I’m sorry-could we do that again? I forgot to turn the machine on.’ I [told him to go to hell] and I left. Imagine that!”
If there were ever 69 words to make a journalist clutch his pockets for extra batteries and second-guess his command over an effective but finicky digital recorder, those are it. That they’re being spoken by Paul Motian-the lodestar drummer who entered jazz history as a sideman and will exit it as a gifted composer and relentlessly adventurous bandleader-doesn’t much lessen the intimidation factor. Nor does Motian’s wit-he’s at once caustic and congenial as only a longtime Manhattanite can be. And his habit of dressing like an assassin from some classic bit of film noir isn’t exactly disarming. Paul Motian is 76 years old, but, at least today, he seems to have retained most of the spunk and mettle of the discharged Navy man who hustled around the City from gig to jam session in the 1950s. Today he enjoys a rare brand of hip, one that comes with being both historical and audacious; a shade of chic that explains why Ornette Coleman is scheduled at Bonnaroo and why Motian, despite having peers who rehash standard renditions of standards, is as relevant to twentysomething players now as he was in the ’60s and ’70s.