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Paul Motian (1931-2011): An Appreciation

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Paul Motian Drummer Paul Motian, who first came to prominence in the late 1950s with pianist Bill Evans' pioneering trio, has died. A representative from ECM Records confirms he passed at 4:52 a.m. in New York City. A cause of death has not been disclosed. He was 80. After this groundbreaking association with Evans, Motian later collaborated with pianists Paul Bley (1963-64) and Keith Jarrett (1967㭈). An eclectic artist, he also worked with Arlo Guthrie in 1968-69, a stint that included a performance with the folk singer at Woodstock. Later, Motian become a composer and bandleader, producing a number of well-regarded projects for ECM Records beginning in the 1970s. He had, since the early 1980s, also led a celebrated trio featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. We remember Motian today by going back to one of his most productive later periods ...

The release of Garden Of Eden brought the count of records featuring Motian's work in 2006 to four, previous albums being I Have The Room Above Her, Bobo Stenson's Goodbye, and Enrico Rava's Tati. All of this from a man who was, at that point, about to turn 75 years old. Incredible. The stereotype that creativity can only peak early in adult life was pretty much being shattered by Motian's latter-day pace.

You might think that somebody working early on with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans would have nowhere else to go. Not so.

If pressed to employ a single word to describe Motian's style of drumming, I might use 'sparse' ... but that's missing a whole lotta something. Perhaps a better word is: aware. Aware of the composition, aware of other band members (both as individuals and as a group), and most important: aware of time. Sure, a role of the drummer is to keep time. In Motian's case, time is kept as an unseen border, a sort of musical spline finding its way through the other elements.

Always one to avoid convention, Motian formed his Electric Bebop Band back in the 1990s. While the material was bop-ish, the lineup, a piano-less group with two saxophones and two guitars, was anything but. Paul's band in 2006 had gone to three guitars. Traditional? Obviously not. A new standard? Just maybe.

It's interesting to hear where this group takes the opening material on Garden Of Eden, Charles Mingus' “Pithecanthropus Erectus" and “Goodbye Porkpie Hat." While fairly dark in coloration, there are some inspired bits, including multi-instrument unison runs, tenors circling each other, and a kind of guitar “group comping," with guitars switching between rhythm and lead parts. I might tend to overuse the word “texture," but here it is the perfect word.

As much as I love the introductory Mingus tunes and the closing pair of Monk's “Evidence" and Charlie Parker's “Cheryl," it's the original material on Garden Of Eden that put the alchemy of this band on full display. The openness of “Mumbo Jumbo," with its extended musings on the intro riff, brings to mind early Bill Frisell (bassist Jerome Han played on Frisell's Rambler. Small world!) The slightly behind the beat guitar kicking off “Balata" somehow gives the song a very contemplative vibe. The saxophones on “Endless" tug back and forth while the guitars stretch out the chords, fill in the cracks with chimey notes, and otherwise do their best to make the tenors sound great.

And, all the while, Paul Motian's drums binds everything together in the most musical of ways on Garden Of Eden. In fact, this recording is one that perfectly illustrates how music, not just rhythm, can emanate from the drummer's chair. This is no more apparent than on the title track. Saxophones trade parts, guitars fade in, drop a phrase or two and leave ... and Motian provides something new during each and every measure. It's not unusual for a jazz drummer to be tuned in to his bandmates. It's quite another thing to make it seem so damned easy.

Paul Motian's Garden of Eden was—and is—the kind of record to be played for the skeptical, “there's nothing good out there anymore" type. This music takes a lifetime of experience and cooks it down to a nice, rich and tasty jazz reduction. In that way, it's the perfect tribute to Motian.


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