Singular Jazz Drummer Paul Motian Dies

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Jazz drummer and composer Paul Motian is dead. He died from complications of multiple myeloma early this morning in New York City. He was 80.

Though little known outside jazz circles, his career, well over five decades long, helped change the role of drums in jazz. His deep internal sense of swing, and the beauty he could create from colorful, occasionally spare accents, made him among the most respected musicians in his field.

Motian grew up in Providence, R.I. He spent time in the Navy and wound up in New York City in the 1950s.

But most discussions about Paul Motian among jazz fans start on June 25, 1961. That's the day Motian played two albums' worth of music — Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby — with the Bill Evans Trio.

That incarnation of Bill Evans' band — Evans on piano, with Scott LaFaro on bass — revolutionized the piano trio format. It made the rhythm section just as prominent as the piano.

"Before that, it was always like, you know, the pianist with bass and drum accompaniment," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2006. "And that just happened that way. I think it was because of the three of us. The three individual players who played the way that we played, and when we played, that was the result. That's what happened."

Jazz drumming is all about keeping time. And what Paul Motian did with time, starting with Bill Evans, and more notably as his career progressed, was to prove that it was elastic. Under his touch, the steady ding-ding-a-ling of swing could be implied, rather than explicitly played, and yet still keep the music grooving.

As his career advanced, so did his artistic vision. Motian began recording his compositions in the 1970s with his own bands.

Pianist Keith Jarrett played on Motian's 1972 debut as a bandleader, Conception Vessel. In turn, Motian played in Jarrett's bands for almost 10 years.

"He was a good drummer because he understood composition," Jarrett said. "A lot of drummers are good drummers because they have some understanding of rhythm. Paul had an innate love of song."

Along the way, Motian played as a sideman and led his own groups. One notable ensemble was The Electric Bebop Band, which reinterpreted jazz classics with horns and multiple electric guitars. And for over 25 years, he also played with a trio of a different kind, featuring electric guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Eventually, Motian decided to stop touring. Over the past few years, he played only in his home base of New York City, most often in the same room where he recorded with Bill Evans 40 years ago: the Village Vanguard.

While the Bill Evans Trio accounted for his most celebrated appearances on wax — and was among his proudest achievements — his career continued for decades afterward.

"I'm proud of the fact that I'm able to still be around and be able to write music and get better at what I'm doing," he told Gross in 2006. "And I feel like I'm still learning."

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