Paul Motian (1931-2011): Colors in Sounds

Paul Motian (1931-2011): Colors in Sounds

Paul Motian, photo courtesy ECM Records

Portrait in Jazz, Track 2, “Autumn Leaves.” I was a teenager, already bit hard by the jazz bug, but just beginning to check out the wide repertoire. I’ll never forget the first time I listened to it. I knew the standard. I was amazed by Bill Evans’s interpretation of it. Then came Scott LaFaro’s solo, and I was carried over to the next level of amazement and then—something else. The trio was playing counterpointing lines together. It almost sounded like they were trading 4s with the drummer, but he was actually playing even less than anybody else. But the way he was playing was completely new to my ears. He was literally talking on the drums and somehow I understood his language. It was as if he was making everybody come out of their musical comfort zones and into their real comfort zones, as just people—expressing themselves in the truest way and not thinking of what they “should” or “shouldn’t” play. This was a trio that altogether had, already, a very fresh idea of how to play this music. And then there was another version of the same tune on the record—more of the “same” stuff happening…only different, so different every time.

I was floored. Something in those drum-sentences completely had me hooked. I couldn’t stop listening to that recording over and over and over again. I never knew you could play drums like that. Actually, I never knew you could play like that at all. It totally ambiguated the concept of how you were “supposed” to do anything in jazz in particular, and in music in general. Eventually, this became true for me regarding all art and life—as long as it was authentic, I could accept it. And this surely was. As much as I grew to not only accept but love Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, it was somehow always about Paul Motian.

Some years later, when it was obvious being a jazz musician was my calling (in many ways thanks to my understanding of the possibilities demonstrated by the Bill Evans trio), I moved to New York. Any chance I got, I went to see Paul Motian play. I checked out everybody else too, from Ben Monder to Keith Jarrett. But somehow, whenever Paul was playing—with the Electric Bebop Band, with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, with Marilyn Crispell and Gary Peacock, with Paul Bley, you name it—I was there. And no matter where it was or with whom, it was fresh and surprising every time. I didn’t always understand it intellectually, but I would instinctively “get” it if I were tuned in enough to truly listen to what he was saying and to simply feel what he was doing. Listening to Paul play was like a thermometer for my soul. When I was balanced, I would be with him right from start to finish. And when I needed some grounding, his playing would inspire me to dive right in and come out of the show in sync with myself. It was the deepest experience I could ever ask for.

I always wanted to play music with my hero. When the moment came and I was ready, I contacted Paul with the help of bassist Ed Schuller, who had played with him on several occasions, and asked them to make a record with me. I asked Ed if Paul would want to listen to any of my stuff so he could see if he liked it, but Ed said that if the request came through a trustworthy source, he would just decide on the spot, according to his mood at the moment. All that was left to do was pray he would be in the right mood. And he was. We met at the studio, since rehearsals were not something he was into. We recorded only original tunes written by me and the music was not easy, but we all trusted it would work out, and it did. On some occasions it worked out so well because he didn’t know it. Before we would record a tune, he would say, “Play it for me.” I would, never completely at ease performing an unexpected solo piece before the man I so admired, and then he would say, “O.K., now let’s play it together.” He trusted his ears, his peers, and—most of all—the moment. He knew what it takes to keep the music fresh, and played it better than I could imagine.

Being famous for never wanting to look at charts, I was very surprised when, at the end of the first recording day, he said to me, “Could I have a chart for this next tune we’re gonna play?” The next day he kept asking me for charts, and at the end of the recording he requested to take them all home. “Are you sure you have more copies?” he asked, as I gave him the entire folder of my music, almost afraid to ask why. As if he was reading my mind, which I always felt he was doing, he explained, “I’m making two new records for ECM next week, and I really like your music. Maybe I’ll record some of it.” That thought was enough for me, and although it never happened, he did something else which has changed my life forever. Two weeks later I was visiting my family in Israel when an email arrived from Paul: “I spoke to ECM. They’re interested in your music. Call me when you return to New York.” This led to ECM Records eventually putting A Long Story, the recording we made together (with Ed Schuller and Perry Robinson), out in 2007. It opened up worldwide doors for me. Paul did it simply because he thought the music was good, and he believed it should be out there. Whenever I would thank him for it, he would always dismiss it as if it weren’t such a big deal. He simply did it because he wanted to.

The Milarepa Suite, Part III, performed by Anat Fort (piano), Gary Wang (bass) and Paul Motian (drums)
Live at the Cornelia Street Café on September 23, 2011 (Video courtesy Anat Fort)

We only performed together live on two occasions—at the Rubin museum in 2008, and more recently at Cornelia Street Café on September 23, 2011. This turned out to be Paul’s last gig. As usual, he didn’t want to rehearse any of the tunes we played that night. I would just start playing them with Gary Wang, my regular bassist of twelve years, and then he would join in, painting an amazingly sensitive and at the same time assured picture of colors in sounds. At the end of the night he said to me, “I don’t know the arrangements, but somehow I just seem to know what you’re doing.” He surely did—not just what I was doing, but what everybody else whom he had played with was doing. I sometimes think that, just like on my recording, it was because he didn’t know that he really did. Like a little kid or a true Zen master, he was always in sync with what he felt. This is what made his music and his life what it was—like nobody else’s.

Paul Motian has changed jazz music’s face forever. He will always be an inspiration to me through the way he lived his life and his music, which were inseparable. I feel honored to have spent some time in his presence, and I know everybody else who has done so feels the same. In the days that have gone by since his passing, I’ve heard a lot of people asking if there will ever be another Paul Motian. The answer is no, and there shouldn’t be. While missing him already, I can tell you one thing for sure: he wouldn’t want that. He would simply prefer people to be “who they are.” He has moved forward. So should we.

Just Now: Anat Fort (piano), Gary Wang (bass) and Paul Motian (drums)
Live at the Cornelia Street Café on September 23, 2011 (Video courtesy Anat Fort)

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Paul Motian (1931-2011): Colors in Sounds

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.