Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Paul Motian

Paul Motian passed away this morning. One of the great drummers in jazz, he was to me one of the world's deepest improvisors and one of the most individual musicians I have ever heard on any instrument. I think back to an evening in the mid '80s when I had the good fortune to play a bit with him. I had just come from an afternoon jam session with some friends. We were playing standards. And it was feeling a bit routine. At a certain point during the session I felt the need to break out of the musical web we were spinning and almost as a joke, I decided to take an entire solo that was completely free rhythmically while still making the changes in time. As it happened my little joke actually seemed to invigorate the music. I might have simply treated the experience as a curiosity had I not decided to head over to the 55 bar on Christopher street in the Village. Guitarist Leni Stern was playing her regular Sunday gig and she would always let me sit in. That evening she had hired Paul Motian to play drums with her. I was surprised and excited at the prospect of playing with him for the first time. With the effect of the afternoon session fresh in my mind I approached the music in just the same way. The effect of this looser playing had been interesting and unexpected during the afternoon session but now with Paul it was much deeper and richer. When I think back on it over the years I realize that at that moment in time Paul was probably the most perfect musician on the planet that I could have played with to validate and solidify this approach. His phrasing was so fluid and yet his internal pulse and feel so strong that I was able to play anything I heard and have it fit the music just the way I wanted it to. I can say with no exaggeration that this was a true musical epiphany. It was as if a door had opened. I walked through and never looked back. Everything I've done since then has come out of that one seemingly casual but quite intense (and amazingly fortuitous) experience.

Paul and I spoke about playing again but that never quite came about. I would go to hear him play and come away completely inspired each time. Some of the early music I wrote for my band came directly after hearing a set he did at the Village Vanguard in the mid '90s. We would cross paths on the road from time to time. In more recent years I began writing him letters, sending him music. Last time I saw him was at the Vanguard almost a year ago. He sounded amazing as usual. And he looked as if he had another twenty or thirty years in him. During the break I had a few moments to speak with him privately and I reminded him of that night some twenty odd years ago and told him how much he and his music meant to me. I'm so glad I had the chance to do that in person.

The world feels different without Paul Motian in it…


  1. Thank you so very much for these wonderful memories of a great musician.

  2. That's a lovely tribute, Ellery. Thanks.

  3. I encourage everyone to seek out Samuel Blaser's Consort in Motion, one of the last recordings that Paul participated in. It's a wonderful record.

  4. Thank you Ellery! Paul Motian set my rhythmic course seeing him with his quintet in '84. He so completely captured the ideal of being free in a form.