Indelibly associated with the Bill Evans Trio, and as a drummer and bandleader as au fait with the complex early advances of bebop as he was with the constant ebb and flow of the post-bop avant-inclined new musical landscape, Paul Motian died at the age of 80 earlier today in New York City.
Born on 25 March 1931 in Philadelphia, Motian began his career in music with George Wallington and Russell Jacquet in the 1950s and with clarinettist Tony Scott’s quartet later in the decade began to play with the pianist who would cast a giant influence over his early career and on jazz then and now, Bill Evans.
Working with Evans and bassist Teddy Kotick, Motian recorded New Jazz Conceptions in 1956, followed by the recently reissued classic album Portrait in Jazz and the five star desert island albums recorded in 1961 (this time with Scott LaFaro on bass) of Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. Motian continued his work with Evans well into the 1960s, but he also found time to experiment with Lennie Tristano and Oscar Pettiford among other important figures.
Later that decade Motian worked in different situations with singers including Mose Allison and Arlo Guthrie, but also with saxophonist Charles Lloyd kept in touch with the new currents soon to energise the jazz scene. With Lloyd’s former pianist Keith Jarrett, and also Charlie Haden, in the late-1960s and early-70s Motian recorded albums ahead of their time, such as The Mourning Of A Star and El Juicio (The Judgement), but he also prepared with Haden for further projects including extensive and important work with the Liberation Music Orchestra, appearing on landmark albums later such as 1982’s The Ballad Of The Fallen for ECM also featuring another significant colleague, Don Cherry.
Since the 1970s Motian worked as a leader of his own bands including a trio featuring Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, and he also formed the highly rated Electric Bebop Band. In 2000 UK saxophonist Martin Speake was commissioned to compose music for an international project featuring Motian, along with pianist Bobo Stenson and bassist Mick Hutton, and together they recorded Change of Heart for ECM. Motian’s last appearances in the UK included work with Speake.
In more recent years Motian had been suffering from heart problems and underwent open heart surgery and since 2003 rarely ventured beyond New York. As a leader he leaves behind a large discography of albums for several labels, most notably ECM spanning the decades, including Conception Vessel, Tribute, Dance and Psalm in the 1970s and 80s; I Have The Room Above Her and Lost In The Dream much more recently; and for Stefan Winter’s JMT and Winter and Winter labels recorded Monk In Motian, Paul Motian And The Electric Bebop Band and important albums recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York.
A remarkably intuitive player, open eared, tactile, loose, and with a wonderful communicative and rhythmic flair, Motian’s place in jazz history is already secure and he will be much missed by students of the music, fans and colleagues alike. – Stephen Graham