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Artist Profiles

Memories in Motian

By Published: November 22, 2013
Paul Motian was one of the few landmarks in New York. As the Empire State Building or the Village Vanguard. In a city where everything changes constantly, where your cornershop may disappear in the twinkling of an eye, where your neighbour moved to California, your lawyer friend is now a taxi driver, etc., Paul was one of the few certainties. Central Park West. It is there, in a comfy apartment, that I met him in 1967, when I moved to New York. It is there, that he spent the last days of his life. Extraordinary musician, extremely personal drummer, unique. Incredible composer, leader and sideman. It was useless to rehearse with him (he didn't feel like it, anyway), as it was useless to give him instructions about his playing on a certain tune, since he would have done it his own way anyway. And it would have turned out much better that way, for sure. I had the great pleasure of playing with him a lot, in different contexts. Sometimes we were both sidemen in Steve Lacy's band or in the Jazz Composer's Orchestra. Some other time he played in my own bands. Each time was a wonderful experience. He was also a master of the "Travelling Light." On tour, while everybody was carrying huge suitcases to face several weeks on the road, Paul showed up with a tiny bag in which he had everything he needed. Like Eega Beeva. We never found out how he would do that. He left, and left the music scene a little poorer. And New York as well.

Explorations Ches Smith—"Israel": Bill Evans Trio—"Explorations" (Riverside—1961) Although I was playing a lot of obnoxious metal and free improv in my late teens, I was seriously pursuing bebop and straight ahead jazz, practicing and playing the music with others as much as I could, and devouring any record I could find with Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
, Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
, Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
1923 - 1985
drums
, Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
b.1926
drums
or Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
. When I bought Explorations by the Bill Evans Trio I was excited to find yet another immediately identifiable, original voice in jazz drums. Paul Motian sold me on the idea that there are infinite possibilities in jazz, and that you too can find your own way. Motian's playing on that record is very melodic and sing-able, and demonstrates a unique approach to orchestration on the drum set. He uses the hi hat in unusual ways, especially on the track "Israel." His playing on the opening melody demonstrates the extent to which a drum set improvisation can play a major part in the arrangement of a jazz tune. Motian fills bars 3—8 with asymmetrical phrases of triplets on the hi hat with off-beat accents, breaking abruptly on bar 9 to match the quarter note triplet melodic figure with the piano with his foot on the hi hat, then back to the triplets for the remainder of the chorus.

When he trades with Evans later in the tune, he often plays the hi hat on beat 1 to start a phrase, or interjects it into a melodic phrase otherwise made up of tom-tom and bass drum pitches. There is a moment where he plays couplings of notes surrounded by space, using the hi hat foot on the second of each of the two notes alternating with floor tom, snare drum and high tom. It is a very unusual combination of sounds which feature the hi hat foot as a strong melodic voice. On his last chorus of trading, he ends with an open-closed hi hat figure, repeating the second half of the figure at the top of the chorus, providing a very subtle illusion that you are ahead of where you should be when you hear the melody from Evans. Motian then blends this seamlessly back into the asymmetrical-triplet concept heard on the head in. Now, post-1964 Miles Davis Quintet, this doesn't sound shocking, but this is indeed an early example of a drummer playing freely across the harmonic structure of the tune.

Motian developed these ideas to an incredible extent throughout his numerous recordings, often in contexts free of meter (if not always free of harmony). I like the way Monk in Motian and Trioism (releases from the late 80s and early 90s, respectively) demonstrate this. When I started coming to NYC in the mid 2000s I heard his trio with Frisell and Lovano at the Vanguard as often as possible. Lately I've often been listening to a Paul Motian set issued by ECM this year. It was nice, however, to go back and check out the Paul Motian I first got into.

It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago Chris Speed
Chris Speed
Chris Speed

saxophone
—"It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago": Paul Motian Trio—"It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" (ECM—1985)


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