The American percussionist, composer and bandleader Paul Motian, who has died aged 80, was perhaps most famous for enhancing the work of a brilliant jazz pianist. This he did not just once, but three times: in Bill Evans’s pioneering trio from 1959 to 1962, over the next two years with Paul Bley, and then with Keith Jarrett from 1966 to 1977. Motian added “beautiful” to the adjectives associated with the drummer’s art, and was much in demand by the most adventurous jazz improvisers.
The saxophonists Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter and Tim Berne had their ideas unobtrusively reshaped by Motian. So did the guitarists Bill Frisell and the Austrian Wolfgang Muthspiel, the bassist-bandleader Charlie Haden – Motian was for some years the drummer in Haden’s rousing Liberation Music Orchestra – and the pianists Geri Allen, Alan Pasqua and Marilyn Crispell. The careers of Lovano and Frisell gathered pace during their creative apprenticeships with the drummer, which began for both of them in 1981 and ran on through the 1990s.
Motian’s method lay between the supply of texture, colour and rhythm that a classical percussionist sporadically injects and the groove-laying drive of a jazz drummer. If swing was needed, he could swing superbly, though often with darkly whispering cymbal sonorities and low-pitched kick-drum sounds of his own. But his innovations really lay in a conversational, instantly reactive approach.
In rethinking the connection between the rhythmic pulse and the improvised melodies unfolding around him, Motian was as significant a drummer as Charlie Parker’s partner Max Roach had been in the 1940s, and played a key role in transforming the sound of small jazz ensembles from the 1970s on. As a composer, he produced original material of quietly persuasive character that offered irresistible invitations to improvisers – beginning with the album Conception Vessel (1972), with Jarrett on flute or impressionistically free-jazzy piano, and Haden in the lineup.
Motian (pronounced “motion”) had Armenian ancestry, was born in Philadelphia and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, taking up drums at the age of 12. After serving in the navy during the Korean war, he studied music at the navy school of music in Washington until 1954, and then at the Manhattan School of Music. He also began working with leading figures, including the composer-arrangers Gil Evans and George Russell, Thelonious Monk, the saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn – and in 1958 with such architects of the low-key “cool school” style as the pianist Lennie Tristano and the saxophonist Warne Marsh.
Motian also met Evans, classically trained and a student of Tristano’s dynamically restrained, extended-improv methods, and played on Evans’s debut album, New Jazz Conceptions (1956). Evans’s trio with Motian and the bassist Scott LaFaro was noted for its collaborative and spontaneously contrapuntal approach. When the 18-year-old Manfred Eicher heard it in New York in 1961, the experience inspired him to found, eight years later, the influential ECM record label, in order to document a new kind of improvised, jazz-influenced chamber music.
Though his employers included more orthodox artists such as the blues singer-pianist Mose Allison (1965), Motian gravitated increasingly towards free jazz. Through the self-help Jazz Composers’ Orchestra Association, he worked with the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the trumpeter Don Cherry and the composer Carla Bley, another figure associated with the Liberation Music Orchestra. Motian also began touring his own music from 1977 – at first in trios including the saxophonist Charles Brackeen, and from 1981 in a highly creative threesome with Lovano and Frisell. The group stunningly re-examined the music from Conception Vessel on It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago (1984), explored a shared devotion to the work of Monk in Misterioso (1986) and recast standard songs in launching the On Broadway series of recordings that continued with various lineups into Motian’s last years. Sound of Love (1995), a live session from Village Vanguard, New York, confirmed the trio’s continuing creativity.
Motian formed the co-operative trio Tethered Moon with the Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and the bassist Gary Peacock in the early 90s; recorded in that decade with Paul Bley, Muthspiel and the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi; and in 1992 formed his Electric Bebop Band, exploring a funkier electric-jazz from his own lateral perspectives. He displayed a mischievous fascination with the improv possibilities of doubled-up instrumentation, particularly using two guitarists of contrasting styles.
Though after heart surgery in his 70s he restricted his perambulations to Manhattan, Motian had been unfazed by life on the road for decades, often travelling simply with a single cymbal and relying on a succession of more or less ramshackle locally supplied drumkits. John Cumming, director of the UK promoters Serious Productions, recalled managing European tours involving Motian in the 1980s: “He had a kit that was falling apart in mid-gig with the Liberation Orchestra once. Two of us were fixing it with hammers and nails. He’d look round, still playing, and hiss, ‘Have you been to the hotel yet? What’s the restaurant like?’ He was funny, modest, very calm, a bit solitary, but a wonderful collaborator.”
In his last years, Motian launched ventures involving the saxophonists Chris Potter and Bill McHenry, and the pianist Jason Moran, and made the ECM album Live at Birdland (2009) with Haden, the saxophonist Lee Konitz and the pianist Brad Mehldau. With The Windmills of Your Mind (2011) he enlisted Frisell and the alt-rock vocalist Petra Haden, daughter of Charlie, to give such potentially cheesy materials as Tennessee Waltz and Let’s Face the Music and Dance a new bite.
Almost till the end – he last played at the Village Vanguard in September – Motian was stirring the same mix of tickling cymbal figures followed by exclamatory slams, softly whispering brushwork and brief surges of swing. Lovano once told me how a piece based on a very perfunctory structure “takes total shape on its own” with the right players. “Playing with Paul Motian taught me about that. Feed in the melody, then let it happen, and how it flows from that moment on comes completely from your imagination and everybody’s collective imagination. Man, that’s an exciting place to be.”
Motian is survived by his sister, Sarah.
• Stephen Paul Motian, percussionist, composer and bandleader, born 25 March 1931; died 22 November 2011Comments (0)