Paul Motian, R.I.P.

Categories: Obituaries

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Jazz lost an icon, and the New York City scene a fixture, last week, when drummer Paul Motian died from complications with myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone marrow disorder.

Motian's career stretched back over six decades, but his name had been inextricably linked with the famed haunt the Village Vanguard since his subtlety and expansive sense of timing aided pianist Bill Evans in reimagining the piano trio in the early 1960s. The albums they recorded together with bassist Scott LaFaro, most legendarily the live dates Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, blurred the lines between leadership and accompaniment. Almost at will, each participant was free to be melodist, rhythmatist and/or soloist, a method which Motian carried with him when he began leading his own celebrated ensembles in the '70s following stints with—among others—Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden's inaugural Liberation Music Orchestra. (Motian also played Woodstock with Arlo Guthrie, flying in with the folkie via helicopter.) All of this activity was meticulously cataloged in what Motian called his "gig books," notebooks in which he'd written down every lineup, club and fee he'd received since the mid-'50s.


Paul Motian Trio, "Dance" (1978)

New Yorkers found themselves getting even more acquainted with Motian in the past five years; once he retired from touring, Gotham was the only place to hear the seductively spaced oomph of his bass drum, and the signature cymbal- and brushwork that exalted silence as much as sound. The drummer's annual residencies at the Vanguard opposite tenor saxist Joe Lovano and electric guitarist Bill Frisell—two talents he'd plucked from obscurity well before their names were big enough to share his on the marquee—were just one of the places to hear how his contemporaneity and traditionalism fed each other. Motian's playing and composing wholeheartedly embraced electricity and avant-gardism, but he also continued to remake and remodel tunes he cut his teeth on (check the volumes of his On Broadway series or the disc Monk In Motian). A longtime resident of Central Park West who called the park his "backyard," he could be heard somewhere in town almost weekly, either with veterans or the younger musicians he'd anointed by his very presence (among them, pianists Anat Fort, Ethan Iverson, Russ Lossing, Masabumi "Poo" Kikuchi, Frank Kimbrough and Jason Moran, as well as violinist Jenny Scheinman and saxists Tony Malaby and Bill McHenry).


Paul Motian Trio (Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano), "Misterioso" (live at the Village Vanguard in 1995)

It's still something of a mystery why, from one day to the next in the '70s, Motian changed his look, opting for the trés cool bald, clean-shaven pate over his long-recognizable mustache and full head of hair. Decades later, it contributed to his aura of agelessness. He was as intensely private as he was generous with those closest to him, and he kept quiet about his advanced illness until after he'd entered Mount Sinai Hospital shortly after his final gig this past September, as part of the Anat Fort Trio at Cornelia Street Cafe. Fort, whose career took off in 2007 after Motian brought her to the attention of ECM Records label head Manfred Eicher, remembered that last date on Facebook with videos of the event: "At the end of the gig, Paul told me, 'I don't know the arrangements, but somehow I just seem to know what you're doing.'" Marvel for yourself: Right up to the end, Motian was clearly as sensitive and intuitive as his reflexes were sharp.


Anat Fort, Gary Wang and Paul Motian, "Milarepa Suite, Part 3" (live at Cornelia Street Cafe in September 2011)

Motian was 80.

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