Paul Motian, R.I.P.

Photo: Claire Stefani

The wondrous drummer Paul Motian died Tuesday morning at the age of 80 (he didn't look much older than 60), and New York, the only city where he ever played for the past decade (and he seemed to be playing somewhere all the time), feels a little emptier.

Motian had a way of juggling rhythm, mood, and compositional structure like nobody else, so insouciant by all appearances yet incredibly disciplined if you listened closely. Often, when I'd see him play at a club, I'd focus on what he was doing, and I couldn't figure it out. At first, it seemed to have no connection with what his bandmates were doing; then, suddenly, I'd realize that he was in fact holding everything together.

It's not that he was a showboat drummer. As long as something was going on in the music (and it didn't have to be much), he would ooze into the portal, effortlessly, and take it into a new dimension, remold it into a more intriguing shape.

One night, between sets of a trio he was leading at the Village Vanguard with Chris Potter and Jason Moran, I asked the pianist Frank Kimbrough, who was in the audience and who'd played with Motian a few times, how the guy did it. "I don't know, man, it's magic," Frank said. "I think he listens so hard, and he has such a complete grasp of his instrument, that whatever he does, it turns out right."

He played with all kinds of musicians, old and young, and, I'm told, never rehearsed. He'd pick up what was happening, and, don't worry, make it better. You had to be super-alert to play with him. That set with Potter and Moran, two of the most assured players out there, whose combined age was still younger than Motian's—I'd never seen them work up such a sweat, and it wasn't because of speed or fierceness, it was the range of ideas and the jumps from one idea to another without breaking the thread.

Motian was best known as the drummer in Bill Evans' greatest trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass, and the classic album from that era is, of course, Waltz for Debby, recorded live at the Vanguard in 1961. (It's also one of the great-sounding jazz albums, especially on Analogue Productions' 45rpm LP-reissue.)

Also must-haves are his sessions with Paul Bley, Charlie Haden (especially the Montreal Tapes), Bill Frisell, Marilyn Crispell, and the romantic-melancholic trio sets with Frisell and Joe Lovano, I Have the Room Above Her and Time and Time Again.

Like Billy Higgins, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach, some of the other great jazz drummers who have died in the last 15 years (or, to put it in personal terms, since the time I moved to New York), Paul Motian will be missed.