PAUL MOTIAN: In Memory of the Man Who Made Silence Swing
An Obituary by John Pietaro
I can still recall when I first became aware of the wonderful subtleties of Paul Motian. I was a college freshman and in checking out his latest quartet album I had to stop to listen a second time to get it. As drummers go, he stood apart from most by simply allowing his instrument to breathe. While Motian lacked nothing in technical skill, his approach to the instrument was considerably more Zen than chops: you just knew that this guy had read Cage’s writings on silence. At 18, a budding jazz percussionist who practiced constantly in order to build up speed and endurance, hearing Paul Motian dance over his cymbals as Bill Frisell’s guitar moaned gently, I came to know the importance of reflective playing and the power of space. Motian had made it into an art form.
Paul Motian first came to prominence in the music world through his part in the classic Bill Evans Trio. In this aggregation, neither he nor the groundbreaking bassist Scott LaFaro, who died tragically young after pioneering a melodic bass style, were viewed as “accompanists” by Evans; not by a long shot. The trio were equal partners in the unique brand of jazz they produced---some called it cerebral but that’s way too simple to describe the likes of “Waltz for Debbie”, “Autumn Leaves” or “My Foolish Heart”. Hear these tracks as chamber music if you’d like but the swing is always there and damned clear. The music got inside of itself and the drumming grooved it along through and well beyond introspection. Motian’s use of wire brushes whispered but also snapped, rolled, danced. Shuussshing his way over the most tender of ballads, as Evans’ widely spaced intervals resounded above and below, Motian sang with his sizzle cymbal and fluttering hi-hats. And in this late ‘50s-early ‘60s period when drummers just kept cranking their kits to tighter, higher pitches, Motian went low, offering carefully resounding tom-toms and a throbbing bass drum that served as a deep heartbeat one moment, a ringing timpani the next. And his interplay with LaFaro, he of the whirling melodic flight in place of a standard ‘walk’, was an avant garde of its own. Here was a rhythm section that held equal reign over the trio’s direction and if the bass was welcome to offer counter-point and counter-melody well then so was the drums. Evans’ band functioned, it’s often been said, as three components of one indefatigable musician.
Such musical passion, however, was not to be contained in one ensemble and Motian, into the 1960s, began working with a variety of other contemporary jazz artists, particularly “cool school” stalwarts like Lee Konitz. This led him to another lengthy and notable gig with a pianist of powerfully creative muse, Paul Bley, who fused composition and free improvisation in new and daring ways. The Bley ensemble reached well into Free Jazz and Motian, though retaining respect for space and atmosphere, offered a more animated counterpoint in his playing than he had with Evans. Suddenly the family name seemed to indicate real ‘motion’ as bar-lines disappeared beneath the drummer’s blurring, timeless pulsations and jazz became new all over again.
Motian’s journey, by the close of the ‘60s, helped to bring music in line with radical politics through the Liberation Music Orchestra led by Charlie Haden and Carla Bley. This large ensemble, in beautifully outspoken terms, shaped protest of the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration into a historic album’s worth of material. Juxtaposing modernist harmonies and free improv into songs of the Spanish Civil War successfully embedded the Old Left into the New and to hell with generational gaps. Traditional melodies associated with that first fight against the fascists paired with compositions by Hanns Eisler/Bertolt Brecht as well as Carla Bley brought the day’s injustices into alarming light. Motian can be effectively heard sporting martial drumming, spiraling through totally abstract rhythms and incorporating series of bells and chimes into his kit. His ride cymbal was relentless, symbolic of the struggle and driving home the solos of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Mike Matler, Rosewell Rudd and Gato Barbieri, among others.
In the 1970s Motian began a long tenure in Keith Jarrett’s band where he seems to have perfected his free improv concepts. More so, the Jarrett work was an extension on what he’d achieved with the trios of Evans and Bley; perhaps the realization of the piano trio by this time saw the format taken to its absolute limits, flipped onto its head, and in turn Jarrett happily accompanied the drummer on his own debut record date as a leader in 1972. While still engaged in the Jarrett band, Motian began to explore his own concepts throughout the decade and by the 1980s came to be known as the leader of one of the hippest ensembles in jazz. His own quartets and trios were fluid, with time being an implied concept and musicians’ roles in the ensemble always subject to the artistry of the moment. The band which featured Bill Frisell’s guitar and Joe Lovano’s tenor saxophone allowed for an atmospheric kind of jazz rarely heard anywhere since the high times of the Bill Evans Trio. Frisell’s use of the volume pedal turned his guitar in many ways, into another horn or a seemingly bowed string instrument, but with a hip, eerie kind of electric echo. The lack of a bassist meant that each of the trio needed to take on the role---or no one at all---and the entire order of what a jazz combo should be was arbitrary.
Paul Motian’s ensembles in the last decades were always fresh and exciting: at times in all-electric groupings, at other points performing his own take on standards in a more common jazz setting (the ‘Broadway’ album is a must listen-to) or simply playing free. His illness, myelodysplastic--a blood and bone marrow disorder—saw his touring come to an end in recent years but his band became a fixture at the Village Vanguard, offering visual and aural lessons in compositional drumming to all who flocked to the legendary New York club. Motian died at age 80 early this morning, November 21, 2011. His contribution to music’s progress immortalized. Regardless of the notes he may have played in the course of any given selection, solo, chorus, indeed measure, Motian made the very silences between them swing, bringing the listener to the next sound with anticipation. And that is pretty much all a musician can hope for.
-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from New York City. He leads the ensemble Radio NOIR www.reverbnation.com/radionoir.