In conversation with paul motian
By Ted Panken
“I think rehearsing takes away from the beauty of the music,” says Paul Motian. “I’ve been playing long enough to know what I’m doing at this point of my life! I’d rather depend on my skills and intuition to play well when the time comes.”
At 77, Motian is an iconic figure, his laid-back, minimalist parsing of rhythm and timbre a fixture on the jazz landscape. “Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in his sound,” Brian Blade observed earlier this decade. “A lot of people miss how Motian moves the music and gets inside it. He possesses an amazing lyrical looseness, but at the same time keeps a swing and pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.”
That feeling seduced a number of drummers who, like Joey Baron, came of age aesthetically in the early ‘70s, when Motian propelled Keith Jarrett’s influential trio and quartet, more than a decade after he attained international visibility playing drums for several editions of the Bill Evans Trio between 1956 to 1963. “At a certain point,” Baron once remarked, “I started hearing interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time, but a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove. It’s the way Paul Motian would really PLAY a ballad; he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did.”
Motian’s contemporaries feel similar enthusiasm for Motian’s clear, pellucid beats and unremittingly in-the-moment focus. “Paul always played like someone who listens and interprets what he hears immediately,” noted Lee Konitz, who first shared a bandstand with Motian more than half a century ago. “He’s an idea man as opposed to a language man,” added pianist Paul Bley, who helped Motian transition into a speculative improviser during the early ‘60s. “I hear him play one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea. It’s way beyond accompaniment per se. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.”
That quality of musical conversation permeates all of the bands that Motian leads. There’s the increasingly dense and complex Electric Bebop Band, comprised of two saxophonists (they’ve included Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Chris Cheek, and Pietro Tonolo), two guitarists (among them Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas, and Brad Shepik), an electric bassist (often Steve Swallow, and also Anders Christensen). Initially the band served as a vehicle for off-kilter blowing on core bebop repertoire by Parker, Dameron, Powell, and Monk, but Motian now uses it to showcase increasingly involved arrangements of his original material.
There’s also Trio 2000, in which bassist Larry Grenadier triangulates Motian and Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, a master of rubato improvising at achingly slow tempos, in a dialogue with saxophonist Potter on the 1998 recording Trio 2000 + 1 or, as on the 2007 album Trio 2000 + 2: Live at the Village Vanguard, with Potter and alto saxophonist Greg Osby, both Winter & Winter releases.
No Motian project has more deeply impacted the sound of 21st century jazz than the Paul Motian Trio, a super-group with guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who were just beginning to make their mark when they released It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago (ECM), the PM3 debut, in 1984. Motian no longer travels, and for the last five years or so, the trio has convened only for an annual fortnight run around Labor Day at New York’s Village Vanguard. Without sound check, completely in tune from the first note of this year’s run, they spun out collective improvisations of the highest order.
“Every time Paul hits the drums, he has this way of surprising even himself—and of course, it surprises everyone else,” Frisell said. “We’ve been playing 25 years, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen.” Nor does Motian. “Red Garland once told me that if you have an idea in your head, somehow it will come out on your instrument,” he told me in 2001. “That’s what I do. My eyes are closed, I play what I’m hearing, I play musical ideas, and when they come out, I find myself doing technical things on the drumset that I’ve never done before in my life. Sometimes it might be awkward; maybe if I studied what I was thinking about, I would figure out technically the best and easiest way to do it, and do it differently.”
On night three of the Trio’s Vanguard engagement, Motian joined me at New York’s WKCR to speak about its history, its two most recent recordings (I Have The Room Above Her and Time and Time Again), and many other things.
We did the new trio recording, plus our trio recording about two years before that, in one afternoon, five or six hours. I go in with new music, and Joe and Bill are great—they can read the stuff right away, and we make little changes now and then.
Your custom over the last decade or so, since everyone’s schedule got even busier, is to get together after a long hiatus, and just hit, even with the barest soundcheck.
We’ve been playing together for such a long time. Now we do two weeks every year at the Vanguard, around this time in September. I don’t think we do anything in between. We don’t rehearse. I came in with a new tune last night, “Olivia’s Dream,” that Joe had never seen before. I put up the music and he played great.
How did you assemble the group?
I had a gig in Boston, and Pat Metheny was playing with me. I said, “I’m putting together a group; can you recommend some guitarists?” He told me about Bill—he mentioned another guitar player (I can’t remember his name now), but he said he thought I would like Bill. Bill came over to my apartment, and we played, and we got along great. That was in 1980, I guess. So I started with Bill, and then I think Marty Ehrlich came in, and we rehearsed as a trio for a while. Then Marc Johnson, the bass player, came by, and we rehearsed with him for a while, and then Marc recommended Joe—or maybe it was Ed Schuller. Then Joe recommended Billy Drewes. Anyway, that quintet came together in ‘81 or so, and the trio thing happened three years later.
Was it a matter of strategy or circumstance?
It just happened. We were playing a gig with the quintet, and at one point during one of the songs, the bass laid out, and it was just Joe and Bill and I playing, and right then, that’s what I heard. I said, “Gee, I could get away with this, guys.” Economically it made sense, plus the music was really happening. So I stayed with that.
You’ve worked with many powerful bass players. The Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro, Gary Peacock and Chuck Israels. David Izenson in your own trio. Charlie Haden in the Keith Jarrett Trio and Quartet. In Oscar Pettiford’s bands in the late ‘50s. More recently in Bill Frisell’s trio with Ron Carter. Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?
That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. Now, it’s got to make sense to me, and it’s got to be musical. With the bass, sometimes I can almost do the same thing, but of course, the bass makes a big difference.
The Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano toured extensively in the ‘80s and into the mid ‘90s.
I got burned out. That’s why I don’t tour any more. It just got ridiculous.
Not just with them, though. You developed a number of groups by the end of the ‘90s.
Yeah, plus I was playing with other bands, other people. People would call me from Europe, and I’d go to Europe or Japan, and play with people there. It’s ridiculous. Now it’s worse than ever, I understand, from when I talk to people now.
It’s been said that you don’t like to leave the environs of New York City, and would probably prefer not to leave Manhattan Island, if possible. . .
Well, no. . .
Not entirely true.
I mean, sometimes I’ll see a film of maybe a small town in Paris that looks really great, and I remember having a good time there, and I miss that. I played all over Italy, and I miss friends and people, and great food sometimes. Not all the time! Sometimes. But I love New York. I’ve been here forever.
But you haven’t been wanting to travel so much for the last couple of years.
No. It’s a hardship, man. Plus, I don’t take my drums, so I’m playing a different drumset every night, playing in a different hall every night. You don’t know what you’re going to come up with. Plus, they gave me a hard time on the airlines. When I was playing with Keith Jarrett and we toured, I would take my own drums. When I started with my own trio, with David Izenson and Charles Brackeen, I would take my drums. But after a while, it got harder and harder, and they charged more and more money. People used to take basses on the plane for free! Put it on a seat and strap it in. Free, man. Now you can’t even take a bass on a plane. Then I would just take my cymbals. Then they started giving me a hard time with my cymbal. “What’s that, mister? You can’t take that on the plane.” Blah-blah-blah. So I said goodbye.
Is it important for you to play with your own drums?
Did you ever feel happy with how you played not on your own drums?
Very seldom. Occasionally, I would come across a good drumset.
Would the difference in quality not be discernible to anyone but you and other drummers?
I feel that it would be. People have told me that I still sound like me, and I’m able to play like me and sound like me no matter what the drums are. But I don’t agree!
What do you use?
It’s a Gretsch drumset that I bought in a drum shop here in New York about 30 years ago. I love the sound of those drums and I love to play those. I’ve been playing the cymbals that I use for quite a few years now. They’re a mish-mash of different companies. I gave my old drumset to Joe Lovano.
Tell me about playing with Thelonious Monk.
I played with him a couple of times—a week in Boston, and earlier at the Open Door at Lafayette and Third Street. Lou Donaldson came to the Vanguard the other day, and we were talking about that, because Lou was in Monk’s band—with Donald Byrd and I don’t remember the bass player—the first time I played with Monk. I knew Monk was playing at the Open Door with his band, and I went to hear the music. The promoter, Bob Reisner, knew I played drums—he had seen me around town. When I arrived, he said, “Paul, Arthur Taylor hasn’t showed up; if you go home and get your drums, you can play with Monk.” Man, I ran home, got my drums, and came back. Monk paid me ten dollars at the end of the night. When I told Lou Donaldson that story, he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s all he paid anybody.” Donald Byrd once told me he’s got a picture of me playing with Monk on that date. I’d love to see it. That had to be 1955 or 1956. Then in 1960 I played for a week with Monk in Boston with Scott LaFaro and Charlie Rouse.
Monk said that he liked one take, and Charlie Rouse also talked about it. If there was anything more than, say, a take-two, they would just move on, go on to the next thing. Once you’re into the second take, it’s like a copy somehow. It doesn’t sound real enough. You’re trying to correct something, man. I remember doing record dates, not my own, like just somebody called me to do a recording, and talking about take 15 and 16. That’s ridiculous.
On one of the Bill Evans Trio dates, Portrait In Jazz maybe, from 1959, you’d done a month at a club called the Showplace, finished the run on a Sunday, then went in the studio to do the session.
That was a club on Third Street. That’s the first record we did with Scott LaFaro.
But fifty years ago, long runs were more commonplace.
Oh, yeah. There was a club on 52nd Street called the Hickory House. I played in there for three months with Bill Evans, and for three months again with Joe Castro, a piano player. I remember playing 10 weeks with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note. Nine weeks at the Vanguard with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. One or two weeks or more at the original Birdland. That’s the way it was, then. It slowed up for jazz around the mid ‘60s. I don’t think I played with Bill Evans after 1964 or so, then I started with Keith Jarrett around 1968. Those couple of years in there, I was doing commercial gigs. I played at a nightclub on 72nd Street with acts coming from Israel. I played with a Hungarian violinist and a Romanian piano player. Great shows!
Was that a valuable time for you? Did it affect the way you heard music?
It paid my rent. That was it.
But between ‘63 and ‘68, your personal aesthetic seems to have changed in certain ways. You played with much more radical players.
True. There was a wonderful piano player in Boston named Lowell Davidson, who isn’t around any more. He was very original, and played great. I used to go up to Boston just to play with this guy. There were different bass players. We did a concert of his music at a church I think in 1976, and the bass player was a guy named Jon Voigt, who was the librarian at Berklee School of Music. Lowell Davidson recorded it, and I had a ¼” reel-to-reel tape in my closet for about 20 years. Finally, I told Manfred Eicher at ECM about it, and he said, “Well, give me the tape, and maybe we can do something with it.” I was ecstatic that maybe this could finally be a record, because the music was incredible. I loved that stuff. But now Manfred tells me now that they don’t know where the tape is! But anyway, I did things with Lowell, and played with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock at a club in the Village with Albert Ayler and John Gilmore. That was a helluva gig!
So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?
I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.
But if my recollection is correct, you weren’t too happy with the way things were going with Bill Evans. Didn’t you leave mid-gig?
I left Bill Evans. We were playing at Shelley Manne’s club in California, and it seemed like I was playing softer and softer until I finally felt like I wasn’t there at all. So I said, “Bill, I’m leaving.” He begged me not to quit, but I did. I paid my own way back home. He got Larry Bunker to play drums. They went up to San Francisco, and then they went to Europe for the first time. So I wasn’t happy with the music. I just felt I wasn’t playing.
Was that because of his own direction, what he was asking you to do, or did it just seem that this was where the music was taking you?
I had started playing with different people in New York, and the music for me was going in a different direction—the Jazz Composers Orchestra and with Paul Bley. I wanted to be part of that. I felt like this was the way to go, and with Bill I felt I was standing still.
In the late ‘50s you were one of the busiest drummers on the scene. I’ve seen your gig book. You were working 330-340 days a year, sometimes twice in a day.
Yeah, I was. I missed that photo shoot of Great Day In Harlem. I had three gigs that day, man. I was told about the photo shoot, that I should go, but I couldn’t make it. I think I played a wedding, a parade, and a gig. One time I was at the Musicians Union, and I was going up the stairs and somebody was coming down. He said, “Hey, Paul! You’re the house drummer at Birdland.” I wasn’t, man, but he just had seen me there a lot.
A lot of the gigs you were doing demanded you swing and keep really good time, but not a whole lot else.
Sometimes. I did a rehearsal with Edgar Varese that was recorded. That had to be 1955-56. There was a tape, and Teo Macero told me that he had it. I don’t know what happened to it. I had a drumstick in one hand and an iron pipe in the other, and I had music in front of me. There were staffs, but not notes. There were open-ended triangles placed in different parts of the staff, and you were supposed to play according to what you. . . Art Farmer was on it, Hal McKusick, Billy Butterfield, the tuba player—an 8- or 9-piece band. I don’t know how come I got the call to do that, but I did.
Well, you got a lot of calls.
Yeah. Somehow. I don’t get it.
When did you hit the New York scene?
I was in the Navy during the Korean War, and for a year I was stationed at Brooklyn Receiving Station, across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I had an apartment in Brooklyn. It was like going to a day job. In the morning, I’d go in to a band rehearsal, and if there was no function or no dignitary to play for or anything, I’d go home, then get my drums and find someplace to play. Go play somewhere. Every day, if I could. I got out in September 1954.
It was such an active time. For one thing, with the G.I. Bill, a lot of musicians were studying.
Well, I went to Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill for a semester. Then in the middle of the second semester, I got a gig with George Wallington and Teddy Kotick at a club called the Composer Room on 58th Street off of Sixth Avenue—sort of a trio room. Teddy got me the gig; I’d met Teddy through Bill Evans, who I met pretty early on. I started falling behind in my studies, so I quit the school then.
Was your experience there valuable for you?
Sure. I was studying tympany and xylophone and piano and all of that.
So you learned something about theory and orchestral percussion, and it refined your skills, I guess.
Oh, yeah. I’d go in for a tympani lesson, and the first thing the tympani teacher would say was, “Sing A.” I never got it right!
No perfect pitch.
No, not me.
Do you hear the drums as a melodic instrument?
Yeah, definitely. It can be an orchestra, if you want to. You’ve got cymbals, you’ve got different tuned drums, you could have a string section, or whatever. But you’ve got to put that in your head. If you put it in your head, it can become real.
What drummers were your modeling yourself after?
Kenny Clarke, number one. I used to go the Bohemia, which opened in 1955. Charlie Parker was the first player they booked to play there, they had his name out front, but then he died. Before that, I went to the Bohemia to play jam sessions. No money. There was no band there. You’d just find some people to play with, then go to the club and say, “Is it okay if we play?” “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” Then people started to hear about it, and it became a club. Anyway, I heard Kenny Clarke playing there with Oscar Pettiford, George Wallington and different people. I was there every night.
I loved Kenny Clarke. His time, his feel. Did you ever hear the movie Miles Davis did the music for, Elevator to the Gallows? Boy, there’s some great stuff on there. Kenny Clarke’s playing brushes on snare drum, really fast tempo. Just the snare drum and brushes, man. It’s great. It’s swinging like a. . . I don’t want to say it, but you know what I mean?
We did a Down Beat Blindfold Test on which you also expressed your admiration for Shadow Wilson.
Sure, Shadow Wilson, but also Philly Joe Jones. I was at the Bohemia nightly to hear Miles Davis with Coltrane and Philly Joe. I’d also go to Birdland to see Art Blakey with his bands. Art Blakey, Philly Joe, Kenny Clarke—those were the people I was listening to, who were playing a lot. Roy Haynes wasn’t on the scene that much then. He was with Sarah Vaughan, so I didn’t get to hear him that much.
Lately, I’ve been listening to drummers from the ‘20s and ‘30s. I mean, Jimmy Crawford with the Jimmie Lunceford band . . . They used to call him Craw. Great. Manzie Campbell with Fletcher Henderson. There are drummers from that period who nobody talks about or knows about any more, but they were great drummers. I have a recording of Papa Jo Jones playing a duo with Willie the Lion Smith, and a trio with Teddy Wilson and Milt Hinton. Incredible. Simple, but just incredible music.
Were you listening to those older musicians at the time?
No. It’s only been lately I’ve been listening to all that.
How did you become interested in the drums in the first place?
There was a drummer in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood was in Providence, Rhode Island.
Right. I was friendly with his younger brother, who was sort of my age, and this drummer was maybe 16 or 17. He used to play in his house, and a lot of kids used to sit out front, listening to him. One day I went with my buddy to hear him play, and I fell in love with it, and asked if he would give me lessons. I guess I was around 11. That’s how it started. He wasn’t really a teacher, though. He gave me some drumsticks and pulled out a practice pad, and he played me Gene Krupa doing “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Benny Goodman, then he gave me some sticks and told me how to play a roll or something like that. After that I found a teacher, and went on from there.
Did you start playing in bands soon after?
Right after I got out of high school, I went on the road with a big band around New England, like one of those territory bands, playing Glenn Miller stuff. Perry Bourelly and his Orchestra. Also I used to play with other musicians in the neighborhood. I remember going to someone’s house and playing with an accordion player and a guitar player, playing popular songs from the ‘40s and so on.
Were you listening to records also, checking out drummers?
I’d hear records on the radio, and send away for them. I sent away for Count Basie records and things with Max Roach, who I also heard on broadcasts from Birdland.
You were coming of age right when when bebop was getting a lot of media attention.
Yes. When I was in high school, someone took me to a record store and played me a Charlie Parker record. It freaked me out. I didn’t know what was going on.
According to your gig book, you first worked the Vanguard maybe at the end of ‘56?
‘57. With Lee Konitz. That was the first time I played there. In those days, they’d have two bands. The Bill Evans Trio opposite the Miles Davis band. We played opposite Mingus. They’d have comedians—I played there with Bill Evans opposite Lenny Bruce. The place was never that full! One night with Bill and Scott LaFaro, there were only three people in the club. Now it’s packed. It’s unbelievable. It’s quiet, and they clap when you walk on stage. That never happened in those days!
Over the last few years, I’d speculate that your different bands occupy 6-7 weeks a year on the Vanguard schedule.
I think it turns out to be two months total. I’m going to go in there with Bill McHenry’s band at the end of this month, going into October. I think Ben Street is the bass player, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, and Andrew D’Angelo on alto saxophone. Then I’m with Trio 2000 + 2 at the Vanguard the last week of November. I’m in the Vanguard in February with the trio of Jason Moran and Chris Potter, which we did last year. Jason Moran was saying that should be recorded live, so maybe I can talk to ECM about it and see. Also, in January I’m doing a week at the Blue Note with Bill Frisell and Ron Carter in January.
Are you under contract. . .
Each record is a one-off situation?
So ECM and Winter & Winter split your time more or less evenly?
Pretty much. I do whatever comes up.
Your history with ECM begins with Tribute in 1972, doesn’t it? I guess your interest in bandleading began while you were with the Keith Jarrett Quartet.
I was playing with Keith, maybe in Boston, in 1976, and I told Keith’s booker that I was thinking about putting together something of my own, and asked if he’d get me a gig if I put a group together. That’s when that company got me a gig in Minneapolis with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson, opposite Earl Klugh. I wanted to do my own music, and I started taking piano lessons and composition lessons. That got me started.
I started playing with Keith around ‘68, coming out of that period with Paul Bley and Lowell Davidson—one thing grew into something else. We rehearsed a little bit, I remember, but not all that much. He didn’t dictate to do this or do that, or play this way or that way. It was open for everybody to play how they played, and everything fit. I left Keith when I started the trio with Charles and David. Actually, Bill Evans called me then and said, “Philly Joe Jones just quit on me; would you play with me again?” I said, “Well, I would love to, but I just started my own trio, and we’re about to do a European tour.” So that didn’t happen.
Did you get to play with him any more before his death?
No. After I left him in ‘64, the only time was at the Vanguard, when he was playing maybe with Eddie Gomez, and I sat in and played a couple of tunes. I felt very uncomfortable. It seemed like the music was on the edge of a mountain and we were about to fall off. It almost felt like it was speeding up or something. But it wasn’t. We ended up at the same tempo we started with. Miles Davis was in the club that night, and he drove me home, and he asked me how I felt about it. I said, ‘Man, it was okay, but the music just felt like it was speeding up.” He said, “Well, man, it’s only a trio; you got to push with a trio.”
In the ‘90s, you started developing a number of bands, the Trio+2 being one of them, and also the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band. The Bebop Band evolved from a unit with odd instrumentation that played standards into a forum for expansive arrangements of your compositions.
Boy, that thing keeps growing and growing. The last time I played with it at the Vanguard, a few months ago, it was like an octet plus a piano player—nine people. I guess I felt like just playing with the trio with Bill and Joe wasn’t enough somehow. Also Bill and Joe started doing a lot of their own stuff, and I felt I wasn’t busy enough. Pretty soon, I started throwing in my music. Now it’s mostly my music; it’s hardly any bebop at all. I feel like you have to keep going on, keep doing stuff, try to do better and better, and try to grow. I’m still trying to grow. I’m still learning.
You employ a lot of young musicians, people under 40, even under 30.
It’s usually by recommendation. Somebody plays with me, they recommend somebody, and somebody will recommend someone else. I’m not thinking about age or whether they go to school or how they learned to play. Then, when they play with me, if I hear something I’d like to play with, I give them the gig. What’s interesting is that the young players who play with me go on to become bandleaders themselves. Chris Potter started playing with me right after he left Red Rodney. I think he was 23 years old. Kurt Rosenwinkel wasn’t much more than 20 when he came to my house the first time. Now these guys have their own bands.
We’ve talked about a lot of things.
I’ve been around a long time, man. There’s a lot to talk about.
Interview notes: Paul Motian was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on September 4, 2008.