Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Motian, Paul (Stephen Paul)

Paul Motian is an American jazz drummer who splits his time evenly and effectively between the postwar styles of bebop, post-bop, cool jazz and free jazz. Whether transfiguring the piano trio with Bill Evans, performing in Keith Jarrett’s “American Quartet,” or leading his own groups, Motian’s combination of traditional swing roots and clever unpredictability have made him one of the most consistently active and prolific drummers in modern jazz.

Stephen Paul Motian (his pronunciation: MO-shun) was born to Armenian parents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 25, 1931. At the age of two, his family relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, where he lived until he entered the Navy in 1950.

His earliest musical imprints include the distinctive combination of Arabic and Turkish music played in his home, as well as widespread popularity of the New Orleans revival and early swing bands he heard on the radio.

His first interest in an instrument was in the guitar, as he liked the cowboys in the movies who often slung guitars as well as guns, he soon discovered the drums and began his life-long commitment to jazz.

Motian began studying drums both in school and in private lessons in Providence, and he starting gigging while still in high school. With the Korean War in full effect in 1950, Motian decided to enter the Navy, and enrolled in the Navy School of Music. Uninspired, he subsequently sailed around the world for over two years with the Seventh Fleet.

Upon his discharge, Motian moved to New York City to start a career as a freelance drummer. Before long, he knew where all of the best late-night jam sessions were, and when Art Taylor failed to show up to play with Thelonious Monk one night, Motian sat in.

In 1955, Paul Motian met post-bop pianist Bill Evans, and Motian began what became a decade-long tenure with the pianist. With bassists Chuck Israels, Gary Peacock, and Scott LaFaro, the Evans recordings of the late 1950s and early 1960s revolutionized the art of the piano trio.

LaFaro and Motian interacted more loosely and freely than most bassists and drummers in piano trio formats, leading to an open, breathing sound and three-way collective improvisation that set the standard for the modern piano trio.

Notable recordings from Motian’s work with Evans include Portrait in Jazz and Explorations, which includes”Elsa”,and this live version of ”Waltz for Debby.”

Throughout the 1960s, Motian was extremely busy as a freelancer, and recorded with Lennie Tristano, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims, Martial Solal, and Eddie Costa, among others.

In the late 1960s, Motian moved from Evans’s trio to join the group led by pianist Keith Jarrett. Dubbed the “American Quartet,” Jarrett, Motian, bassist Charlie Haden and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman released some of Jarrett’s most well-regarded material, including Birth, Life Between the Exit Signs, Expectations, and Death and the Flower.

In 1975, Motian recorded the album Mysteries, which includes ”Mysteries” and ”Everything That Lives Laments.”.

In 1972, Motian began his career as a bandleader and composer with the ECM recording Conception Vessel. His relationship with ECM lasted for twelve years, and yielded some of Motian’s most revered solo material, from Psalm and The Story of Maryam to 1984’s It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago.

It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago was the first record to feature tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. This exploratory bassless trio has released many records, and continues to perform regularly at New York City’s Village Vanguard, as it did on this performance of ”Yallah.”

Since leaving Jarrett in 1978, Motian has balanced his time as a composer, sideman, and bandleader, recording for ECM, Soul Note, JMT, and most recently, Winter and Winter records.

In recent years, Motian has recorded with Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Mose Allison, and Enrico Pieranunzi, and continues to gig with Lovano and Frisell as a trio. He is also active in another band of his own creation, The Electric Bebop Band. A cradle for young New York City-based tenor saxophone and guitar talent, this group has included Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. The Electric Bebop Band plays energetic, electrified versions of bop standards.

Motian has also released records to honor some of his great musical counterparts and influences. In 1990, Motian released Bill Evans: Tribute to the Great Post-Bop Pianist, and Play Monk and Powell appeared in 1999, and over the past decade and a half, he has released four volumes of a series called On Broadway, performing tunes by his favorite theatrical songwriters with Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, and Charlie Haden. Volume One of this series includes the tune ”Liza.”

Motian is still active on the bandstand in New York City, having completed a run at the Blue Note with Bill Frisell and Ron Carter in December of 2007, and playing on no less than five albums released that year. To get a sense of Motian’s current style, check out ”Mumbo Jumbo”on the 2006 ECM release, Garden of Eden.

Ultimately, it is Motian’s unique combination of musical achievements that warrants his reputation as a jazz master. From his sensitive and artful playing with Evans to his often intense playing with Jarrett and Haden, and his multilayered, freer original work with Frisell and Lovano, few drummers have ever attempted, much less achieved, to switch gears as consistently and creatively as Motian has.

Creating a timeline of Motian’s musical career gives a jazz fan a sense of the development of the music since 1950 – combinations of traditional trios, electric quintets, cool influences, bop influences, and free influences, all executed with a solid connection to the history of jazz.

A Note on Motian’s Drumming Style:

The startlingly unique nature of Motian’s drumming has provided him with a constant “in-demand” status for over fifty years. His brush technique is impeccable, as evidenced on many of the trio recordings with Bill Evans. When he picks up sticks, musicians and audiences alike are never quite sure what to expect. His often sounds like a minimalist, leaving out essential portions of the swing groove in order to poke back at his fellow musicians in musical conversation.

Conversely, Motian sometimes plays raucous, exhilarating solos that are rhythmically clever enough to often draw laughter from his fellow musicians on the bandstand. Whether playing minimally or aggressively, his constant motivation is to provide a melodic statement from the drums, whether accompanying a soloist or soloing himself.


As a leader:

Conception Vessel (1972), Tribute (1974), Dance (1977), Le Voyage (1979), Psalm (1981), The Story of Maryam (1983), Misterioso (1983), Jack of Clubs (1984), It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago (1984), Circle the Line (1986), One Time Out (1987), Monk In Motian (1988), On Broadway, Vol. 1 (1988), On Broadway, Vol. 2 (1989), Bill Evans: Tribute to the Great Post-Bop Pianist (1990), Motian in Tokyo (1991), Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band (1992), On Broadway, Vol. 3 (1993), Trioism (1993), Reincarnation of a Love Bird, Vol. 71-81 (1994), At the Village Vanguard (1996), Sound of Love (1998), Flight of the Bluejay (1998), Play Monk and Powell (1999), 2000 + 1 (1999), Tethered Moon (1999), Fantasm (2000), Europe (2001), Holiday for Strings (2002), I Have the Room Above Her (2005), Garden of Eden (2006), On Broadway, Vol. 4: Or the Paradox of Continuity (2006), Time and Time Again (2007), Live at the Vanguard, Vol. 1 (2007)

With Bill Evans:

Complete Riverside Recordings (1956), Jazz Showcase (1956), New Jazz Conceptions (1956), Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958), On Green Dolphin Street (1959), Portrait in Jazz (1959), 1960 Birdland Sessions (1960), At the Village Vanguard (1961), Explorations (1961), Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961), Village Vanguard Sessions (1961), Waltz for Debby (1961), How My Heart Sings! (1962), Moonbeams (1962), Trio 64 (1963), Affinity (1978)

With Keith Jarrett:

Life Between the Exit Signs (1967), Somewhere Before (1968), Birth (1971), Expectations (1971), Mourning of a Star (1971), Fort Yawuh (1973), Backhand (1974), Treasure Island (1974), Death and the Flower (1975), Mysteries (1975), Shades (1975), El Juicio (The Judgement) (1976), Eyes of the Heart (1976), Survivor’s Suite (1976), Bop-Be (1977), Byablue (1977), Silence (1977), At the Deer Head Inn (1992)

Additional Recordings (Selected):

Classic Sessions (Hal Stein, 1955), Jazz Workshop (George Russell and his Smalltet, 1956), Day in New York (Tony Scott, 1957), Eddie Costa Quintet (Eddie Costa, 1957), Continuity (Lennie Tristano Quartet/Quintet, 1958), Art of Improvising (Warne Marsh, 1959), Jazz Alive: A Night at the Half Note (Zoot Sims, 1959), Live at the Half Note (Lee Konitz, 1959), Know What I Mean? (Cannonball Adderley/Bill Evans, 1961), Martial Solal Trio at Newport (Martial Solal, 1963), Paul Bley with Gary Peacock (Paul Bley, 1963), Syndrome (Paul Bley, 1963), Turning Point (Paul Bley, 1964), Turns (Paul Bley, 1964), Wild Man on the Loose (Mose Allison, 1965), Liberation Music Orchestra (Charlie Haden, 1969), Tropic Appetites (Carla Bley, 1973), Sage of Tippo (Mose Allison, 1981), Ballad of the Fallen (Charlie Haden/Carla Bley, 1982), Rambler (Bill Frisell, 1984), Clairvoyant (Leni Stern, 1985), Fragments (Paul Bley, 1986), Etudes (Charlie Haden/Paul Motian feat. Geri Allen, 1987), Paul Bley Quartet (Paul Bley, 1987), Village Rhythm (Joe Lovano, 1988), Segments (Geri Allen with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, 1989), Discovery: Live at Montreaux (Gonzalo Rubalcaba, 1990), Dream Keeper (Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra, 1990), Tethered Moon (Masabumi Kikuchi, 1991), Rhapsody (Lee Konitz, 1993), Muthspiel/Peacock/Muthspiel/Motian (Chrisitan Muthspiel, 1994), Flux and Change (Enrico Pieranunzi/Paul Motian, 1995), One More Angel (John Pattitucci, 1995), Awareness (Larry Goldings, 1996), Gimcracks and Gewgaws (Mose Allison, 1997), Just Friends (Martial Solal/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian, 1998), Montreal Tapes with Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Charlie Haden, 1998), Montreal Tapes with Geri Allen (Charlie Haden, 1998), Recollection (Leni Stern, 1998), You and the Night and the Music (Helen Merrill, 1998), Not Two, Not One (Paul Bley/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian, 1999), Three Guys (Lee Konitz, 1999), Live at the Village Vanguard (Geri Allen with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (2000), Amaryllis (Marilyn Crispell, 2001), Fellini Jazz (Enrico Pieranunzi, 2003), Adobe (Tony Malaby, 2004), As It Grows (Russ Lossing, 2004), Doorways (Enrico Pieranunzi, 2004), I’m All for You (Joe Lovano, 2004), For the Time Being (Salvatore Bonafede, 2005), Special Encounter (Enrico Pieranunzi, 2005), Tati (Enrico Rava, 2005), Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian, 2006), Play (Frank Kimbrough, 2006), Think Like the Waves (Gordon Grdina, 2006), New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 2: Voices (Marc Copland (2007), Roses (Bill McHenry, 2007), Two Miles a Day (Jacob Sacks, Elvind Opsink, Mat Maneri, Paul Motian, 2007)

Contributor: Eric Novod