The death of Paul Motian affected me more than I thought it would.
It was his time, to be sure. Ted Panken says that Paul told him that he was feeling weak during his last week at the vanguard, barely being able to last through the week. Ted suggests that a life not being able to play would not suit Paul in the slightest, and that his passing could not be better timed. I’d like to think that’s true.
I have always liked Paul’s playing, but I don’t think I have ever included him when asked “Who’s on your list of favorite drummers?”. He is almost definitely on that list, however. My list is usually: Max Roach, Billy Higgins, Dannie Richmond, Ben Riley, Roy Haynes, and Kenny Clarke(among others, but these are the normal list). Paul shares many attributes with many of those drummers. He has the ears and intuition of Richmond, the dynamic flair of Roy, the quiet power of Higgins, and the old-school swing of Kenny Clarke, and the ability to call out the surreal using fairly digestible language, like Max.
I’m not sure why Paul isn’t on my list when I talk about him. His record Etudes with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden is one my perennial playlist, as is his work with Joe Lovano. I guess that for me, listening to Paul is pleasure, not business. It’s the same reason I always forget about Dexter Gordon when talking about Tenor players: I’ve listened to him so much that I forget about everyone on the planet not knowing how much I like him.
Looking back on Paul’s career in the last week, I have realized something that I haven’t seen written lately(although I’m sure that forthcoming blogs will at least touch on it): There are only three heavily influential pianists in the last fifty years that Paul didn’t play with, and interestingly enough, they are three of the “Big Four” influential pianists of this half century, McCoy, Chick, and of course Herbie. He of course played with many other great instrumentalists, but he cleaned up with pianists. This may be substantiated otherwise, I’m no expert on Paul’s discography, but there are no records that I’ve seen that includes these three.
In his lifetime, Paul played with(off the top of my head) Monk, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Lennie Tristano, Carla Bley, Michel Petrucciani, Masabumi Kikuchi, Geri Allen, Jason Moran, Hank Jones, Dan Tepfer, Larry Goldings, and Brad Meldhau, not to mention two of my three current mentors, Ethan Iverson and Jacob Sacks. I’m sure there are loads that I’m missing.
To have played with Lennie, Paul, Keith, Bill, Hank, and Monk in particular is astounding. The skillset required for those six is completely different. Never mind playing with a pianist who hated drummers(Lennie), you need an extremely subtle swing to deal with Hank Jones, you need to know different harmony, rhythmic cycles, and have a great ear with Bill, you need to be aware of the surreal with Bley, you need to have an enormous skill set to play with Keith alone(technique, ear, stylistic masteries, being able to deal with his personality), and you need to be able to survive Coltrane’s “elevator shaft” when you play with Monk. In addition, all of these six are coming from completely divergent beats, both within swing and without.
And he through all of this became an integral part of the group’s sound. Imagining Bley with John Gilmore, the Bill Evans Trio, Lovano’s All for You Quartet, or the American Quartet without Paul is impossible. Of all of the groups of all of those musicans, the group with Paul is the most important and exciting.
On the night of his death, I saw Ethan Iverson play at smalls. The gig started like this:
It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
The potential Presidents are arguing on CNN
It’s 8:30 PM
And Paul Motian is dead.
He then sat down and played the most jarring and angular blues I have ever heard. I was shocked, considering that this was supposed to be his “tradition” trio. At the end of the set, Ethan set up his solo rendition of Paul’s “Byablue” with a more formal and controlled lesson about Paul’s role in the music’s history. Two eulogies. I expected the last one, but seeing Ethan and a few members of the audience close to tears was something that I’ll never forget.
So I mourn the loss of Paul Motian. He was a shaping force of modern music. I am blessed that I got to see his second to last performance at his home for the last two decades, the Village Vanguard. I can only hope that someone steps up and fills the massive hole that Paul is leaving behind.
“He taught me, brought me up. Pointed the way. Showed me things I never could have imagined. Led me to places of extraordinary beauty. Indescribable.”