Motian the Magician

I don’t know what Paul Motian’s doing, I don’t understand how he’s doing it, all I know is that it’s wonderful. I’ve just returned from seeing the Motian 3 at the Village Vanguard, a high-powered trio that consists of Motian, Jason Moran, and Chris Potter (and no bassist to hold the anchor). Moran, just shy of 33, is, as I’ve written many times, the most extraordinary jazz pianist around. Potter, 37, as I’ve noted a couple times, is a tenor saxophonist with a galvanic tone and fleet agility. But Motian, at 76 (older than both of his trio mates combined, playing topnotch jazz since his days with the Bill Evans trio a half-century ago, and more combustive now than ever), is the heart-racer.

Throughout the set (a mix of Monk, standards, and originals), Motian would be bashing with brushes, swirling with sticks, coaxing rhythms, sub-rhythms, beats that are out of rhythm, klook-a-mop tempos that seem to have no connection with what Moran and Potter are doing—and yet it all melds perfectly. Your foot’s tapping, your head’s bobbing, your alpha waves are cruising, the music is tight, loose, inside, outside, mellow, intense, all at once—what’s happening here? My friend, the pianist Frank Kimbrough, was in the audience. Frank is an astute musical analyst as well as a terrific musician; he played with Motian two years ago on an excellent trio album (called Play). I asked Frank if he understood how Motian does it, and, somewhat to my relief, he shook his head, no less awed and puzzled. “It’s magic,” he 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.”

Of course, Motian needs top-notch sidemen to do what he does at full throttle, players who know to keep going and how to keep up, and at the 9 pm set Thursday, Moran and Potter were in superb form. Potter occasionally looked dazed after a solo, as if he were thinking, “How did I do that, and how much longer can I keep this up?” This is the most inventive trio I’ve seen in a while, certainly the most equilateral in its triangulation. I hope they play together often and record an album very soon.

Tony's picture

Sounds liek a great show. Moran can--who knows, may even be-- a great pianist, except that he tends to take his own press notices too seriously. Some of his experiments reach for the profound (his electronic effects, Monk multi-media, ect) but hit only the pretentious. Too often he can be merely precious. But when he digs in, he can be fantastic.

Jan's picture

Yes, Motian is a truly unique drummer. I heard him some years ago at jazzclub Fasching in Stockholm, with Potter on tenor and Marc Johnson at the bass. Definitely the best I've heard live for many years. And Potter played fantastic too. To me he's best as a sideman, check out Scott Colley trio, This place on the danish Steeplechase label. From 1998, but might still be possible to find. Great playing by Potter again! On his own records his playing is more tense and not as open as I've heard him with others. And about Motian, listen to the great record by Bobo Stenson trio, Goodbye on ECM a few years ago. Beautiful piano by Stenson and bass-playing by Anders Jormin. And behind and under it all, Motian's inventive drums. Absolutely wonderful music!!