Great jazz drummer Paul Motian has died | Bleader

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great jazz drummer Paul Motian has died

Posted By on 11.22.11 at 12:13 PM

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Paul Motian
  • Paul Motian
Brilliant jazz drummer Paul Motian died in New York today. He was 80. I haven't been able to confirm the cause of death, but according to Sunnyside Records he had been in hospice for the past couple of weeks. I suppose it's never exactly a shock when someone his age passes away, but in this case it's especially hard to accept—his drumming still sounded so alive. Though Motian stopped traveling years ago, gigging only in New York, he still played and recorded frequently, and the slew of recordings he made in recent years prove that he remained one of jazz's most distinctive and original voices. He was an exceptionally melodic drummer and among the most swinging timekeepers ever to pick up sticks, but he was also constantly prodding and pushing the members of whatever band he played in.

I've spent a good amount of time recently listening to a new album by tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry called Ghosts of the Sun (Sunnyside), a quartet session with Motian—it was recorded in 2006 during the same sessions that produced McHenry's album Roses, released by the same label in 2007. (Motian was supposed to play with the band—McHenry, guitarist Ben Monder, and bassist Reid Anderson—during an engagement a few weeks ago, but his illness prevented it.) McHenry brings a complexity and dissonance to the music that belies the grainy elegance of his lines, but Motian is just as responsible for the music's nubby grit, using staggered snare bombs and stuttered cymbals to keep everyone on their toes—not just the band but the audience too. Below you can listen to one of the album's more extroverted songs.

Earlier this year Motian released The Windmills of Your Mind (Winter & Winter), an unlikely collaboration with singer and violinist Petra Haden of That Dog (and a million other one-off projects), who sticks to vocals on this album. The band, which also features guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan, plays a collection of pop standards, from "Tennesse Waltz" to "Lover Man," as well as some Motian originals on which Haden sits out. The partnership isn't quite as odd as it might seem, since she's the daughter of bassist Charlie Haden, one of the drummer's steadiest collaborators over the years—and of course because Motian was always open to the influence and ideas of younger musicians. He worked regularly not only with fellow veterans such as Lee Konitz but with an army of younger players (McHenry, Brad Mehldau, Jacob Sacks, Adam Kolker, Anat Fort, Kris Davis, Tony Malaby, and Gordon Grdina, among others). During his career he played behind countless legends—Haden, Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett—but he never rested on those laurels.

This excellent piece by Ben Ratliff gets to the heart of Motian's singular approach.

Bill McHenry, "La Fuerza"

photo: Peter Gannushkin /

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