Paul Motian was born in Philadelphia in 1931 and raised in Providence, Rhode Island. After toying with the guitar, the young man “fell in love” with drumming at the age of 12 after watching a teenage neighbor play drums. Motian studied with the young man for a short time before finding a more seasoned teacher. It was just the beginning of his lifelong exploration of the drum set.
His technique developed to the point where he began playing gigs, while he studied the music of such legends as Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. Drafted into the Navy at the advent of the Korean War, Motian finished his service while stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“It was like going to a day job,” he told jazz.com. “In the morning, I’d go in to a band rehearsal, and if there was no function or no dignitary to play for or anything, I’d go home, then get my drums and find someplace to play.”
One night he wound up at the Open Door, one of the city’s premier jazz clubs, to hear Thelonius Monk. “The promoter, Bob Reisner, knew I played drums – he had seen me around town,” he told jazz.com. “When I arrived, he said, ’Paul, Arthur Taylor hasn’t showed up; if you go home and get your drums, you can play with Monk.’” After the show, the famed pianist gave Motian $10.
His ever-heightening profile began to get notice throughout the New York jazz scene, where he performed with Lennie Tristano, George Russell, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. While working with Tony Scott’s group, Motian got the chance to play with pianist Bill Evans, who was looking to launch a solo career following a celebrated stint with Miles Davis’ sextet. Along with bassist Scott LaFaro, Evans and Motian formed the Bill Evans Trio in 1959, which soon set new standards for group improvisation.
“I think it was the first time that people were playing in a piano/bass/drums trio that wasn't just the pianist being backed by bass and drums,” Motian told allaboutjazz.com. “It was like three pieces of a puzzle that just fit together very nicely.”
Grady Tate took over the drum chair in Evans’ group when Motian quit in 1963 to play with pianist Paul Bley. He explained his reason for leaving to jazz.com: “We were playing at Shelley Manne’s club in California, and it seemed like I was playing softer and softer until I finally felt like I wasn’t there at all.”
Motian’s schedule seemed only to grow busier through work with such leaders as Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Lloyd, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Lloyd, Mose Allison. He even made an unusual appearance at the Woodstock festival backing up Arlo Guthrie, and famously turned down John Coltrane’s offer to become the second drummer in the saxophonist’s group – a decision he would later admit regretting.
All the while Motian’s drum style moved determinedly away from strict, repetitive timekeeping to a more melodic approach that explored tone and texture while only implying the pulse. “I guess it's an evolution,” he told allaboutjazz.com. “After I played with Bill Evans and then started playing with Paul Bley and Albert Ayler and different people, I just started opening up the way I played and it just sort of became what it’s become.”
After freelancing with many of the top leaders in jazz, Motian joined Keith Jarrett’s trio in the late ’60s, playing alongside bassist Charlie Haden, who would go on to become one of the drummer’s frequent collaborators. After several years Jarrett expanded the lineup to a quartet with the addition of saxophonist Dewey Redman, and continued until the band broke up in 1976.
Motian had already begun to explore the possibilities of being a bandleader, releasing his first album, Conception Vessel, on ECM in 1976. This marked the beginning of a long string of releases, which at first featured many artists the drummer had worked with, including Jarrett, Haden, Leroy Jankins, Sam Brown, and Carlos Ward.
But by 1980, Motian was ready for a different challenge. “I wanted guitars,” he would explain, and formed a quintet featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Ed Schuller, and saxophonists Joe Lovano and Billy Drewes (saxophones). Within a short time, the quintet shrunk to a trio with Frisell and Lovano – without bass or piano.