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In Motian (RIP Paul Motian)

Jon Wertheim
Contributing Writer
jon.wertheim@gmail.com / @rtbjazz

Paul Motian, who died yesterday at the age of eighty, was the first jazz drummer I ever heard, on Bill Evans' Sunday At The Village Vanguard. I never tried to incorporate his style into my own as a drummer - it was too personal, too close to his own personality and history for me to try to emulate. Now, I'm glad I chose the way I did. Hindsight would have only made me cringe at how badly I would have approximated one of drumming's greatest artists.

For several months, I've toyed with the idea if writing a piece on Motian and Roy Haynes. Two of, when I first came up with the idea, the last living drummers from the 1940s and 1950s, their styles have evolved drastically over decades of experimentation. In Motian’s case, play a Bill Evans record and a Jakob Bro record to a young jazz fan, and I'd bet he'd be puzzled by the obvious similarities between two drummers who are seemingly as obviously different.

Motian, in the 1970s, discarded the airy lightness of the 1960s, just as he had discarded the more conventional approach he had on the drums in the 1950s. But he never lost the space in his playing. Getting rid of the soft, light touch of his work with the Bill Evans trio in favor of a bolder, more muscular sound only cut away distractions from his musical essence - never the essence itself. I think of Paul as a minimalist player, one who used very few notes, but this is not in fact the case. He could often be a very busy player, filling a track with myriad sounds from his drums and punching out driving, wave-like solos.

It was his individual notes, the strike of a stick or a brush on drumhead or cymbal, that were minimal. There is no baggage on a drumbeat from Paul Motian, no needless whisper of the brush bristles, no rattle from a too-loose snare. Every note was chosen carefully to fit with every other note, but also to stand alone. Few drummers, old or young, can say as much for their own playing. Paul was no minimalist - he was a detailist, and as with a great poet or a great painter (of whatever style), specificity and care in the creation of one's art can only enhance it. Paul Motian not only enhanced his own playing this way, but the playing of dozens of other musicians, on dozens of records. Thankfully, we still have these - and the ability to click "repeat," over and over and over. RIP, Paul - you will be missed.


”My Man’s Gone Now” from the Bill Evans Trio’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961) featuring Evans on piano, Scott Lafaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums


”Birdsong” from the Paul Motian Trio’s Lost in a Dream (2010) with Jason Moran on piano and Chris Potter on sax


”Yallah” with Paul Motian on drums, Joe Lovano on tenor sax and Bill Frisell on guitar

Jon Wertheim, a jazz drummer and (somewhat) acclaimed jazz writer, can be found at his jazz blog, Rehearsing The Blues, and on Twitter. He has released one album, Returning.