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Paul Motian: Sound in Motian

Russ Musto By

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It was during his tenure with Jarrett that Motian would truly develop the nascent qualities that today characterize his music.
"Everything comes from the sound. It's in the sound. It's in the sound of my drums. It's in the sound of whatever I'm hearing, Paul Motian says describing his unique musical style. "I don't have any idea what I'm doing, what I'm going to do. I don't plan. I'm playing off of the other people I'm playing with. I'm getting my ideas from the other people I'm playing with...I'm getting my ideas from the sound—the sound of the drums. That's really the most important thing.

As a child Motian was surrounded by the sound of Middle Eastern music in the home of his Armenian parents and he often credits the Arabic and Turkish melodies and rhythms of his youth with having a lasting influence on his own idiosyncratic approach to drumming. Born March 25th, 1931, in Philadelphia, he grew up in Rhode Island during the swing era and after a brief flirtation with the guitar he settled down at the drums and became involved in the big band music of the day before falling under the modernist spell of the early beboppers.

"In the beginning people that influenced me were Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Art Blakey and Philly Joe, the drummer recalls. "They influenced me a lot. I remember going to hear Max Roach and he had Clifford Brown in the band and Sonny Rollins; and hearing Art Blakey when they weren't even called the Messengers and listening to what they were playing and trying to play like them and trying to copy them. And Kenny Clarke and those records with Miles that was some good shit... I listened a lot to those guys and I tried to play like they played. And I guess eventually you evolve and you kind of turn into yourself—you get to be yourself, hopefully.

Motian moved to New York in the mid '50s and worked briefly with Thelonious Monk. The iconoclastic pianist's resolutely individual style had a lasting effect on the drummer's own personal approach to rhythm and composition, which he further developed while working with forward looking artists such as George Russell, Tony Scott and Lennie Tristano. Of the latter he recalls, "He wanted you playing the 4/4 and he'd play around it, which was a challenge for me, it really was. I remember one time playing with him at the old Half Note for 10 weeks and we had a different bassist every week. He changed the bassist every week, man. But he kept me. It was quite an experience.

It was while with Scott and Russell that Motian got his first experience playing with pianist Bill Evans. In 1956 the drummer appeared on Evans' debut date as a leader, but it wasn't until the two started working together with bassist Scott LaFaro a couple of years later that they began earning widespread recognition for their innovative approach to the piano trio format—one in which each member had a nearly equal voice in determining the sound and direction of the music. The Evans-LaFaro-Motian group made several recordings for Riverside, including the classics Waltz For Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, which had a marked influence on legions of jazz pianists.

After LaFaro's tragic death the dynamic of the Evans unit changed and eventually the restless Motian, feeling the need for more freedom and stimulation, left the band and teamed up, first with Paul Bley and then with Keith Jarrett, two of the pianists moving the Evans Trio's concept of group improvisation forward. Motian's conception was also advancing, obviously affected by the bold rhythmic revolutions of Elvin Jones and Sunny Murray, as well as the interactive innovations Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell were pursuing with Ornette Coleman. Jarrett's trio (which also featured Ornette bassist Charlie Haden) and "great American quartet (that added another Coleman disciple, saxophonist Dewey Redman) would attain a legendary status similar to that achieved the Evans trio a decade earlier.

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