Paul Motian, a jazz drummer and composer who spent more than 50 years in the music industry, died November 22, from complications of multiple myeloma. He was 80.
The New York Times' Ben Ratliff once called Motian "one of the greatest drummers in all of jazz." The rare drummer who disliked drum solos, Motian recorded some of his most memorable work with pianist Bill Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro. Their recordings include the classics Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Portrait of Jazz.
In addition to work with the Bill Evans Trio, Thelonious Monk and Lee Konitz, Motian's resume also included work with Paul Bley and a long collaboration with Keith Jarrett.
In 2006, Motian joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a wide-ranging conversation about his career. Interview highlights are below.
On Drum Solos
"I'm not a showpiece drummer. ... I feel like I'm an accompanist. It's my sort of thing to make the other people sound good, as good as they can be. I feel like I should accompany them, and I should accompany the sound that I am hearing and make it the best that I can — that I can do."
On Playing With Thelonious Monk
"The first time was in the mid-'60s, and the reason I got to play with him was because I went to hear him play. It was in a club in the Village here in New York. And the drummer was supposed to be Arthur Taylor. And he wasn't there, he didn't show up, and the promoter of the concert was a man named Bob Reisner. He had seen me around town playing drums. He said, "Paul, Arthur Taylor didn't show up, man. If you want to go home and get your drums, you can play with Monk.' So, I ran home, got my drums, came back and played with Monk that night. And Thelonious paid me $10. I was thrilled to death. But I didn't know the music that well, so I just, you know, gritted my teeth and did the best I could."
On Playing In The Bill Evans Trio
"Bill was really particular about any recording. If the result wasn't topnotch, if the result wasn't really great and satisfying for him, he wouldn't want to put it out. He wouldn't want to release it. I'm sure that he would be against a lot of this stuff that is being released now — second takes, outtakes and all that stuff. And he did sometimes think of himself as not really playing great."
On Bill Evans' Addiction To Heroin
"There was one time when we were playing in Washington, D.C., and the bass player at the time was Jimmy Garrison. And we were supposed to play for two weeks, and I think we ended up playing only one night or only two nights. And one night in particular, we were on the stage, and Jimmy and I were waiting for Bill to start playing. Bill was just sitting at the piano; he wasn't playing. All of a sudden, he stood up, and he went to the — walking to the front of the stage to the microphone. The place was packed. It was full of people. And Bill ... made an announcement to the people and he said, 'You know, I don't feel like playing right now. Can you understand that?' And they all applauded. And they were all for it. And we walked off the stage, and I believe the reason for that is because Bill didn't have the drugs he wanted to have.
"And at the end — and then Jimmy and I said, 'Well, what's happening? What's going on?' And he said, 'Well,' he said, 'I want to go back to New York.' We said, 'Well, man. We're supposed to play here for two weeks.' Bill said, 'I don't care. I just want to go back to New York.' And, finally, we — after talking to him about it and arguing back and forth, we finally got him to stay and to finish the week. So we finished with the one week, and then we quit and went back to New York. But that was one instance where he didn't feel like playing because of that, because of not having drugs. But I would never have thought, 'Well, I am going to go get him some drugs so he will play.' No way I'm going to do that. That's his life, and he can do what he wants with it."
On Learning Piano
"I love the piano. I think it is my favorite instrument. I don't — I don't consider myself a pianist; I'm not really good at it. But by taking the lessons and learning a little bit, it really helped me."
On His Career
"I am proud of a lot of music I made with Bill Evans, and also music with Keith Jarrett. There were some great moments there. And I am proud of the fact that I am able to still be around and be able to write music and get better at what I am doing. And I feel like I am still learning. Sometimes, I feel like I am still learning. I mean, I learn stuff — one day, I was playing with some French musicians in Paris. We were playing a ballad, and I started to think about what I was doing. And I realized that I was playing three different tempos on the drums against another tempo that was totally different than the other musicians were playing. When I realized I was doing that, I tried to figure it out, and as soon as I thought about it, it started to fall apart. So I stopped thinking about it. And continued on. And that was amazing."
More on Paul Motian from the NPR Music archives:
Interviews & Profiles
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