I first saw Paul Motian in the early ’70s with the Keith Jarrett Quartet. The group came to our modest Midwestern university one cold Saturday night and set up on risers in the student union ballroom. Except for Motian, none of the group, which included bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Dewey Redman, seemed glad to be there. Jarrett, reportedly upset with the condition of the piano, spent most of the concert prowling around the make-shift stage shaking things and beating his fists on the piano box. Occasionally, he would reach inside and grab at the instrument’s strings as if trying to pluck something out of it. For a brief moment in the second set, he sat down on the bench and began to roll out his signature harmonic churn. But he soon grew bored of it and walked off the stage leaving Redman, as he had done all night, to solo at length.
The performance proved a showcase for the drummer. Motian, smiling and slapping sticks at his kit, played in an off-beat fashion that seemed odd to our young ears. When we thought the accent should come just there, he brought it a split second later. When we anticipated an extended press roll, he cut the rumble short. At the break, we foolishly described his playing as sloppy and carefree, as if he’d had one too many beers (we didn’t know if he’d had any, and probably not). By the end of the show, especially after his sonically-rich solo that highlighted the second set even more than Jarrett’s brief stint at the keys, we better understood what he was doing, how it fit in and what all the color and shading he applied did for the quartet’s sound. Motian had made us believers in a different kind of timekeeping.
Today, with his passing , I’ll lament not only his loss –recent recordings showed he had much left to add — but also the loss of my vinyl copy of Conception Vessel (scroll far down), his 1972 date with Haden, Jarret, violinist Leroy Jenkins and others.. I’ll pull out I Have the Room Above Her to hear him with long-time mates guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, Monk In Motian to enjoy his comprehension and extension of the Monk sound and some of those wonderful JMT recordings of the ’90s (I’m listening to the cymbal-shimmered twang of Trio i sm now) and to Reincarnation of A Love Bird with its two guitars, two saxes and fine Steve Swallow bass work (truly a reincarnation of Monk, Miles, Mingus and Gillespie). And I’ll listen to what he’s done for younger emerging artists, like pianist Anat Fort whose music seemed the perfect canvas for Motian’s painterly ways (he’s on her first ECM recording Long Story, the opening and ending cuts of her latest are titled “Paul Motian”). Recordings make it too easy to miss our lost musicians.
Maybe Richard Cook and Brian Morton say it best in The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings:
Time will tell how important Motian is ultimately considered to be in the development of jazz since the war; but if all revolutions in the music turn out to be upheavals in the rhythm section, then it seems likely that he will be seen as a quiet revolutionary.