Paul Motian, influential jazz drummer, dies at 80

November 22, 2011

Paul Motian, whose subdued, shape-shifting drumming with pianist Bill Evans and other musicians influenced generations of jazz drummers, died Nov. 22 at a hospital in New York. He was 80.

Tina Pelikan, a spokeswoman for Mr. Motian’s record label, ECM, said he had complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone-marrow disorder.

In a career of almost 60 years — he performed less than two months ago — Mr. Motian (pronounced “motion”) worked with many renowned jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano and Keith Jarrett.

His most memorable musical partnership came with Evans, a pianist with a poetic touch. They first recorded together on Evans’s 1956 album “New Jazz Conceptions,” then formed a trio in 1959 with bassist Scott LaFaro.

Together for less than two years, the trio became one of the most important groups in jazz history. In addition to two studio recordings, the trio released two live albums, “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and “Waltz for Debby” — both recorded on June 25, 1961 — that have become enduring classics.


Jazz musician Paul Motian (Photo by Claire Stefani/PHOTO BY CLAIRE STEFANI)

“Bill Evans has no casual fans,” journalist Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker 40 years later. “After that afternoon, his name became synonymous with a heartbreak quality that is not like anything else in music.”

Many of the tunes recorded at the Vanguard were familiar standards, but the organic, flowing approach was something utterly fresh. In the trio’s collective musical approach, the bass and drums took on almost equal importance with the piano.

“We were the best and we knew it,” Mr. Motian told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. “We knew we had something different and original that no one had done before. It was a different way of playing in the context of a trio. It wasn’t piano, bass and drums, it was music made by three people.”

Evans had a way of revealing new colors in musical chords, like a jeweler examining facets of a gem, while LaFaro made the bass as melodic as a guitar. Behind them, Mr. Motian tapped his drums and cymbals with a fluid grace, often introducing moments of silence into the rhythm, as he expanded the role of drumming beyond timekeeping to a new level of creativity.

“Lots of drummers are about power and energy,” critic Will Friedwald wrote in the New York Sun in 2006. “Mr. Motian is about supporting a soloist … with exquisite coloration and holding and ensemble together.”

The Village Vanguard sessions would be the last time the trio of Evans, LaFaro and Mr. Motian would perform together. Less than two weeks later, on July 6, 1961, the 25-year-old LaFaro was killed when his car skidded off a road in upstate New York and smashed into a tree.

“It’s like you take a puzzle with maybe a thousand pieces,” Mr. Motian said in 1990, recalling the magic of the Evans trio, “and maybe you find only three that really fit together. That’s a rarity, man.”

Stephen Paul Motian was born March 25, 1931, in Philadelphia and grew up in Providence, R.I. His Armenian parents were born in Turkey and came to the United States by way of Cuba.

Mr. Motian, who played guitar before turning to the drums at age 12, later said the Arabic and Turkish melodies he heard at home helped shape his musical ideas.

After serving in the Navy in the early 1950s, he played with an all-star roster of musicians on the New York jazz scene before teaming with Evans and LaFaro.

He continued to work with Evans for two years after LaFaro’s death but left after the pianist’s growing addiction to heroin began to affect his music. Evans died in 1980.

Mr. Motian worked with pianist Jarrett for about 10 years and, during a brief sojourn with folk singer Arlo Guthrie, appeared at the Woodstock festival in 1969.

After buying one of Jarrett’s pianos, Mr. Motian began to compose music and released many albums under his own name. He worked in a variety of settings, including an innovative trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. He had a second trio in recent years, with pianist Jason Moran and saxophonist Chris Potter, and was widely admired by younger musicians.

In 2004, after decades of international touring, Mr. Motian decided he’d traveled enough and refused to accept any jobs outside New York.

“I don’t even go to New Jersey of Brooklyn anymore, man,” he told the New York Times in 2006.

Information on survivors could not be confirmed.

In an e-mail, Jarrett recalled working at New York’s Village Vanguard jazz club when Mr. Motian accidentally fell off the bandstand.

“I heard a crash, looked up, and Paul wasn’t there at his drums,” Jarrett wrote, “but coming from behind his drums was his arm, reaching for the cymbals so he wouldn’t miss a beat.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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