Backstage with...Paul Motian

Photo: Robert Lewis

Time Out New York: On your new ECM record, Garden of Eden, the group is billed as the Paul Motian Band, not the expected Electric Bebop Band.

Paul Motian, drummer: It's the same configuration—electric guitars and saxes—but we're not doing as many early bebop tunes as before. Mostly it has stuff by myself and some band members. We're at three guitars now, up from two.

TONY: It seems like the group's sound grew out of your trio with tenor saxist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell.

PM: You could say that, and the trio'sstill together. It's been 25 years now. Interestingly enough, I met Walter Cronkite at a Joe Lovano gig last year, and it reminded me that I got the title of our first album, It Should Have Happened Long Ago, from something he said on the news while I was writing. That phrase went with the melody I was working on.

TONY: Guitars are so identified with rock. Have you ever played rock rhythms?

PM: Not really. But one time in Italy they supplied me with what you might call a rock & roll drum set. There were all these tom-toms on racks, tons of cymbals and a huge bass drum. That rock sound was the only thing I could get out of it.

TONY: You're on the famous Bill Evans Trio albums that were recorded at the Village Vanguard. How do you feel now about your playing on them?

PM: [Surprised] I think it's nice. Do you?

TONY: Once I was talking to [pianist] Tommy Flanagan about being on John Coltrane's Giant Steps, and he said his playing was okay, but that today he could play circles around the guy on that album.

PM: [Convulsive laughter] Oh, that's great! Thanks, Tommy. What a wonderful musician he was. I actually feel like that too, although playing with Bill and [bassist] Scott LaFaro was when I began expanding my style. It was no longer necessary to stay in 4/4 time and keep a steady beat.

TONY: Do you have a favorite of the records you made with Bill?

PM: The first one.

TONY: Portrait in Jazz?

PM: Yeah. People wonder how the trio sounded so together on our first date, but that actually came about after we'd played two weeks straight at a club in the Village. I think it was called the Showplace. Hey, but someone just told me there's a new Evans box with the Vanguard stuff, with all the crowd noise on it.

TONY: Yeah, each disc has the sets just the way the group played them. We can even hear you guys figuring out what to play next.

PM: The Vanguard was very different in those days. People were smoking, talking, drinking; now it's like a concert hall. I think I liked it better the other way. Back then, people left you alone to play and work out stuff, whereas nowadays you can hear a pin drop. The acoustics are beautiful, but there may be more pressure.

TONY: Do you ever get tired of questions like "How many times have you played the Vanguard since 1960?"

PM: I get all kinds of questions about things or dates I can't remember from 50 years ago, but y'know, someone once asked if I knew how many times I've set up and dismantled my drum set. I couldn't believe it. Man, I've been playing drums since I was 12, so how ridiculous is that?!? —K. Leander Williams

Garden of Eden comes out Tue 24 on ECM. The Paul Motian Band plays the Village Vanguard Tue 24--Sun 29.