RIP Paul Motian

Paul Motian

Paul Motian

We've just learned of the death of drummer Paul Motian, who passed away today at the age of 80. There is no handy way to sum up Motian's achievements; in his own subtle way, he was one of the most fiercely original improvisers the world has ever known.

Motian first made his mark as part of Bill Evans's groundbreaking late '50s--early '60s piano trios. In 1967, he joined rising-star pianist Keith Jarrett, and throughout the '70s Motian anchored Jarrett's colorful, wildly eclectic American Quartet. The drummer began directing his own groups in the early '70s, and by the mid-'80s he'd evolved into a master bandleader; working in various formats, most notably a long-running trio with saxist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell, Motian carved out a warm, weird sound world, full of romance and reverence for jazz tradition but constantly flirting with abstraction and turbulence.

In recent years, Motian, a longtime New Yorker, was a local fixture. (Quite literally: Late in his career, he vowed never to play outside NYC again.) He could be found almost monthly at the Village Vanguard, where he led projects featuring a variety of younger stars; Motian relished their challenges, and challenged them alike with his mercurial improvisational logic, in which airy swing was punctuated with eccentric accents and chasms of unsettling silence.

When my colleague Steve Smith and I compiled our list of 25 essential NYC jazz icons this past June, awarding the top spot to Mr. Motian was a no-brainer. He was a magician of his instrument, and one of our city's (and the world's) most enthralling musical enigmas. He will be sorely missed.


Read a 2006 TONY interview with Paul Motian by K. Leander Williams.