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Paul Motian Dies at 80

Paul Motian, the revered drummer whose ethereal, selfless playing was one of the most singular and identifiable styles in all of jazz, died at 4:52 a.m. in New York City, as confirmed by a representative from ECM Records. He was 80. The cause of death was myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone-marrow disorder, according to the New York Times.

Said saxophonist Joe Lovano, who worked often with Motian over the past three decades, “Paul was a strong, charismatic character, with a lot of energy and passion. He had a complete sphere of energy that you can hear in his playing, which could shift and change moods in a nanosecond. He was very serious and funny at the same time. He was a beautiful, creative soul, with so much love and passion.”

Born in Philadelphia on March 25, 1931, Stephen Paul Motian, of Armenian extraction-his name was originally pronounced MOH-tee-uhn but he later took to using the simpler Motion-moved with his family to Providence, R.I., at age 2 and lived there through his high school years. He began playing drums at 12, taking lessons and performing with local jazz outfits before joining the Navy in 1950. While serving he enrolled in the Navy School of Music and after his discharge he settled in New York, where he began working with various jazz groups.

The first major artists with whom Motian gigged were Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lennie Tristano, Tony Scott and George Russell, but his legend began forming in 1955 when he joined pianist Bill Evans. He stayed with Evans for nearly a decade, working with the great bassists Scott LaFaro, Chuck Israels and Gary Peacock and appearing on most of Evans’ groundbreaking recordings of the era, including Evans’ 1956 debut as a leader, New Jazz Conceptions. The Evans-LaFaro-Motian group, in particular on albums such as Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, is credited with redefining the possibilities of grace and interactivity in a jazz piano trio.

After leaving Evans in 1963, Motian became highly prolific, playing with pianist Paul Bley (1963-64) and then for nearly a decade with Keith Jarrett (beginning with 1967’s Life Between the Exit Signs album). Motian was first part of Jarrett’s trio with bassist Charlie Haden and then, with the addition of saxophonist Dewey Redman, Jarrett’s famed “American quartet” of the ’70s.

Recalled Jarrett via e-mail earlier today, “Paul was one of a kind: a musicians’ drummer who thought about the music, not just the rhythm, and cast his own sound on everything he played. But he could play anything, and with anybody. He was committed to his work, and didn’t stop learning as he grew older. When he wanted to start writing music, he learned how to write. Once, while playing at the Vanguard, I heard a crash, looked up, and Paul wasn’t there at his drums. But coming from behind his drums was his arm, reaching for the cymbals so he wouldn’t miss a beat. He had fallen off the drum stool in his musical excitement, but never stopped playing.”

He was an active freelancer, playing at various times with Don Cherry, Charles Lloyd, Mose Allison, Carla Bley, Warne Marsh and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Motian even performed with folk-rocker Arlo Guthrie during the late ’60s, appearing with the “Alice’s Restaurant” singer at 1969’s Woodstock festival.

Motian debuted as a bandleader in 1972 with an album of original compositions for ECM Records, the same label for which Jarrett recorded. Jarrett and Haden were among the musicians who assisted Motian on that first recording, Conception Vessel. Motian continued to release albums on ECM for the next dozen years, and during his career also recorded for Soul Note, JMT and Winter & Winter. (He returned to ECM in 2005.) As a composer his work maintained an airiness and artfulness that paralleled his drumming. His oeuvre included folk-like melodies, tender ballads and exercises in delicate harmonic atmosphere.

On 1981’s ECM quintet record Psalm, Motian was joined by the young Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell, his future partners in an enduring and influential trio. Remembered Lovano, “I was 28 and Paul had just tuned 50 when we started. It was a springboard into everything, being around the crowd of master musicians that he came up with: Miles, Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane, Mingus, Max Roach. Listening to his recordings growing up guided me as a young player, and to actually play with him over the last 30 years has been amazing. … From the time we started to play together in 1981, he and Bill Frisell and I were a family.”

The trio, at times joined by players such as Haden, saxophonist Joshua Redman or pianist Geri Allen, recorded tributes to Evans, Monk and Broadway show tunes in addition to standards and Motian originals. Over the last two decades, Motian also recorded with bassists Ron Carter, Steve Swallow and Gary Peacock, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Enrico Pieranunzi, and many others.

In addition to Lovano and Frisell, Motian nurtured other great jazz musicians during their formative years. In the early ’90s, he formed the piano-less Electric Bebop Band, which included two saxophones and two guitars; in 2006 a third guitar was added. Among those who put in time with the band were saxophonists Redman and Chris Potter and guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder and Steve Cardenas. Wrote Potter, who also released the acclaimed Lost in a Dream with Motian and pianist Jason Moran last year, “I learned so much from Paul, I don’t know where to start. His aesthetic instincts were on such a high level, and he had the inner strength to trust them completely. He was so generous to me and all the other younger musicians he inspired, I’m so thankful I knew him. I just wish I could play with him one more time!”

Despite the fact that Motian stopped touring around 2004 and played almost exclusively in Manhattan-his groups were a staple of the Village Vanguard schedule-he performed and recorded prolifically and thrillingly over the last half-decade. Motian’s most recent album release as a leader was this year’s The Windmills of Your Mind, on Winter & Winter, featuring Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan and Petra Haden, the vocalist daughter of bassist Charlie. A trio document featuring Motian, pianist Chick Corea and bassist Eddie Gomez, Further Explorations, is due out from Concord Jazz in January.

Originally Published