OnlineRock Blog

29 November 2011

R.I.P. Paul Motian, Jazz Drummer, Dead at 80

By Joseph Christ

Legendary jazz drummer, Paul Motian, passed away on Tuesday from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome. He was 80 years old and lived in Manhattan, New York. Throughout his career, Motian (pronounced motion) was a common thread between several jazz groups that helped shape and influence the jazz music of today. He helped free the jazz drummer from the sole task of time keeping and developed a subtle, free-form drumming style.

 Paul Motian, legendary jazz drummer.

Of his entire career, his most notable partnership was with Bill Evans. Their first album, New Jazz Conceptions, was released in 1956. Later, bassist Scott LaFaro joined the duo and the Bill Evans Trio was conceived, eventually becoming one of the most important and influential groups in jazz history. Recorded June 25th, 1961, their live album, Sunday At The Village Vanguard, is considered one of the most important jazz albums of all time. Sadly, the Village Vanguard sessions would mark the last time the trio would perform together. 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. Although the band only recorded two studio albums and two live albums, their impact on the jazz community cannot be overstated.

One of the most influential jazz records of all time, featuring Paul Motian on drums.

Stephen Paul Motian was born March 25, 1931 in Philadelphia, and he grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. His Armenian parents were born in Turkey and came to the United States by way of Cuba. Motian, who also played guitar before turning to the drums at age 12, later said the Turkish and Arabic melodies he heard at home helped shape his musical ideas.

After serving his time 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. Other notable collaborations with Motian include: Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk and Arlo Guthrie, who can be seen playing with Motian in 1969 at Woodstock.

 Bill Frisell, Paul Motian and Joe Lovano of the Paul Motian Trio.

Notably, in the 1980s, Motian formed his own jazz group, The Paul Motian Trio, with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. In 2004, he entered into semi-retirement, refusing to take any jobs outside of New York. “I don’t even go to New Jersey or Brooklyn anymore, man,” he told The New York Times in 2006.

By his peers, Motian was considered a composer, a band leader, and of course an outstanding drummer. When asked to describe his technique and style, he said, “I don't have any idea what I'm doing, what I'm going to do. I don't plan. I'm playing off of the other people I'm playing with. I'm getting my ideas from the other people I'm playing with...I'm getting my ideas from the sound - the sound of the drums. That's really the most important thing.”

 Paul Motian in 2007.

He is survived by his sister, Sarah McGuirel. To get acquainted with the drummer's work, here are some recommend titles: Waltz For Debbie and Sunday At The Village Vanguard, both live albums with the Bill Evans Trio. Also be sure to check out: Treasure Island and Shades with Keith Jarrett.

To get a taste of Motian's drumming style, some sweet jazz to wind you down:


R.I.P. Paul Motian - a drummer who kept jazz moving.

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