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Bill Frisell Remembers Paul Motian

The legendary drummer passed away last Nov. 22

Producer Orrin Keepnews, Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans and Paul Motian (from left) make jazz history at the Village Vanguard in 1961

Editor’s note: Starting today we will be publishing a series of daily tributes to 15 important jazz artists who passed away during the past 12 months. Each was written by an artist who was in some way touched by the late great. First up is guitarist Bill Frisell’s farewell to Paul Motian, one of jazz’s most significant drummers.

In the spring of 1968, I went to my first jazz concert in Denver, which was Charles Lloyd’s band, and Paul was playing drums. I don’t even know if I knew who Charlie Parker was at that point. So it was at the very beginning, and the first drummer I heard was Paul.

There was no one who sounded like him. As I learned about what it was I wanted to strive for, my heroes became people like Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, and Paul was also one of those guys for me. So I never dreamed I’d have a chance to play with him.

In 1981, I’d been in New York for a couple years and I was scuffling along. I was playing, but I was doing weddings, too. I was in this little apartment in New Jersey, and on the floor I had Conception Vessel, his first album on ECM. The phone rings, just completely out of the blue. A voice says, “This is Paul Motian. Do you want to come over and play?” It was sort of like Miles Davis calling; I couldn’t believe it.

I went over to his apartment and Marc Johnson was there. That was heavy-duty. I’d never met Marc; I’d never met Paul. Bill Evans had died about a year before, and they were talking about him. Then we started saying, well, let’s play something. They said, “My Man’s Gone Now.” So I’m playing this song I associate with Bill Evans with these two guys who played with him. It was heavy for me. And I’m still trying to play that song.

We played that first time, and I’m thinking, “Oh, God, this is incredible.” And I’m just praying Paul would ask me to come back, and he asked me to come back next week. Then, a couple days later, I get this really intense pain in my stomach. I had to have an emergency appendectomy. And I’m in the hospital thinking, “Oh, no, now I can’t go back.” I was so scared he wasn’t going to call me again, but he said, “No, that’s cool. When you feel better come back and we’ll play some more.” We played for nine months, and he would have different people come over. Eventually it was Joe Lovano, Ed Schuller and Billy Drewes, and we finally played a gig.

That was a revelation, too. After we’d been playing in his apartment all that time, he was just checking us out and checking out the music and writing tunes. And I sort of got used to what that was. But we drove up to Boston and played at this club-Lovano, me, Paul and Ed-and the first note that Paul played was like, “Oh, my God.” It was about 10,000 times louder than anything he’d played in his apartment, and the intensity was jacked up 100,000 percent. I almost had a heart attack.

But Paul demanded that I was myself. It had nothing to do with the fact that I played guitar. Prior to that, I was a guitar player and people would hire me to play a certain role. Paul gave me this incredible gift of letting me be myself. And it just kept on going. That’s what’s so scary about not having him around. It’s like, with so many things, the first time I did them were with him. I just came back from a European tour, and every step I took, it was like, “Wow, the first time I ever went to Paris was with Paul.” He was just so much a part of everything I do.

Originally Published