I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard Paul Motian. I was a sixteen-year-old record store employee, and playing in the store was Keith Jarrett's 1966 recording, “Life Between The Exit Signs.” As the music began I stopped in my tracks, struck by a conception of drumming more adventurous, more complex, and more musical than anything I had ever heard before. In place of traditional timekeeping patterns were extraordinarily detailed rhythmic phrases alternating with carefully sustained brush strokes and deliberate silences, each phrase simultaneously a response to the phrase preceding it and to Jarrett's piano improvisation, with Motian‘s performance slowly rising and falling in complexity from the beginning of the piece to its end. As I listened, I thought, "this is exactly how the drums always should have been played."
Of course, before Paul Motian, drums were never played this way. Even today when musicians first hear Motian, they marvel over the uniqueness of his conception. His music is a fusion of opposites: gentle and violent, acoustic and electric, structured and free, complex and primitive. The primitivism is, of course, deceptive; the complexity, subtle. To hear Paul Motian play is to enter a highly personal world, a world as demanding of the listener as it is rewarding.Perhaps as a result of phis uniqueness, Motian himself is impossible to pigeonhole. I've heard him referred to as a legend by an audience member at one of his performances. Journalists often lump him together with many of the avant-garde drummers of the sixties. Yet how many avant-gardists have been hired to play with swing era giants such as Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge? How many jazz drummers Motian‘s age can execute rock rhythms with an appropriate feel, and without altering their musical identity? How many drummer-bandleaders can claim to have composed several albums worth of strikingly original compositions? More importantly, what other modern jazz drummer, with the exception of Roy Haynes, can claim to have been a stylist and an innovator during several stages of jazz's evolution?
Most artists reach their prime in their youth and stagnate thereafter. Motian became a prominent hard-bop stylist in the fifties, and yet has continued growing ever since, becoming a major innovator who helped to create several of the drumming styles of the sixties, and a brilliant bandleader and composer in the seventies and eighties. Now in the nineties he is more prominent than ever. He simultaneously leads an all-star trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell and his new six-piece “Electric Bebop Band.” His recorded output during the last five years includes 11 albums as a leader or co-leader, with many more as a sideman. And three years ago, after countless appearances as a sideman over the past four decades, he debuted as a bandleader at New York's most prestigious jazz club, The Village Vanguard.
I recently had the pleasure to question Motian about his ideas on himself, jazz and drumming. His unpretentious comments reveal how his development evolved as a matter of course, given his approach to making music on the drums.