Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Windmills of His Mind: Remembering Paul Motian 1931-2011

Paul Motian (1931-2011)

On November 22, 2011 the jazz world lost Paul Motian, one its best musicians. The drummer, who was born in 1931, was still active in his 80thyear with a recent gig at the famed Village Vanguard in New York. It was a testament to his endurance as one of the most important players of the Modern Jazz era.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Motian started playing the drums at the age of twelve. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War moving on to the Manhattan School of Music in 1954. His early professional years were spent in the company of Lennie Tristano, the innovative be-bop pianist that led to a meeting with Tristano’s student, Bill Evans. It was an important era in the post-bop, modern era of jazz which was suddenly interested in expanding the palette beyond Charlie Parker’s ideas. The music was becoming more introspective and harmonically sophisticated. In 1957, he made his first record with Evans and bassist Teddy Kotick called, New Jazz Conceptions (Riverside).

Bill Evans Trio: Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans, and Paul Motian
By 1961, Motian was the drummer in the most famous Bill Evans Trio with bassist, Scott LaFaro. This band was captured in a stunning live performance on Sunday at the Village Vanguard, (Riverside) dutifully recorded by Orrin Keepnews. LaFaro, who died in a car accident ten days after the recording, was also considered part of the new, innovative players on the scene at the time. Motian easily established his sensitive style on drums matching Evans on the piano, while fully supported by LaFaro on bass. The album is considered one of the best performance recordings in jazz. Motian went on to record eight more albums with Bill Evans, records that musicians consider the gold standard of post-WWII contemporary jazz. (Motian often returned to the Vanguard with different bands during his career that, as he got older, was based in New York.)

Many years later, Motian recorded with another innovative pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Gary Peacock on an album called, Live at the Deer Head Inn (ECM, 1992). Motian brings a balanced sensitivity and a soulful ear on equal footing with Jarrett’s often-reckless improvisations. Every cut is outstanding, but "You Don't Know What Love Is," with its extended introduction, is a wonderful example of Motian's articulation.

His recent album, Windmills of Your Mind (Winter & Winter), was recorded in September 2010 in New York. On what appears to be Motian's last recording, we hear music that exemplifies everything he learned about the art of playing the drums. It features the daughter of Charlie Haden, Petra Haden singing on half the album. It is a fresh approach to a music that doesn't let intimacy get in the way of a good performance. It's this emotional freedom that distinguishes Motian from everybody else in jazz and his ability to play so softly.

As a musician, I can't tell you how hard it is to play quietly without making the music sluggish. Motian, along with Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan keep the steady rhythm without getting in each other's way. Windmills of Your Mind is an album that breathes; long pauses between tracks and carefully sequenced instrumentals to break up the songs.

Paul Motian was a prolific musician who made hundreds of recordings as a leader and sideman. In fact, he recorded for every major jazz label, except Blue Note, in the United States during his career. His best work, I think, can be heard on recordings he made for the European labels, ECM and JMT. Motian was probably given carte blanche to record whatever he wanted on his own terms and I must say, he never made a bad one. Perhaps it was his sense of capturing the immediacy of musical innovation while holding a high standard of technical excellence. Either way, it all worked, enshrining Motian as one of the finest musicians in the history of jazz.

Here’s my list of selected albums that should never go out of print.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside) 1961
Explorations (Riverside) 1961
Trio '64 (Verve) 1964
Rambler w/Bill Frisell (ECM) 1985
Live at the Deer Head Inn (ECM) 1992
Etudes w/Charlie Haden (Soul Note) 1987
Paul Motian on Broadway, Volumes 1 - 4 (JMT/ W&W) 1989
The Montreal Tapes, w/Charlie Haden and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Verve) 1992
Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch) 2006
Konitz, Mehldau, Haden, Motian: Live at Birdland (ECM) 2011

- John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster. He’s a member of the Festival Winds Orchestra in Toronto, which is holding a Christmas concert called Holiday Magic on December 10, 2011. The conductor is Keith Reid. For more information, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment