Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am

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When an elderly jazz musician dies, fans generally mourn the loss of a link to glories of the past rather than music the artist had yet to create.

In the case of Paul Motian, who died on November 22 at the age of 80, we must mourn both. He was still playing at the Village Vanguard club in New York as recently as September, and earlier this year released an album, The Windmills of Your Mind, on Winter & Winter, on which his playing was as fluently inventive as ever.

The past to which he was a link, though, was glorious indeed. Motian was the drummer with the classic Bill Evans Trio which otherwise comprised Evans on piano and Scott LaFaro on bass. He outlived Evans by more than 30 years and LaFaro by more than 50.

Motian's playing moved the emphasis of the drummer's role from timekeeping to providing colour, commentary and texture. The result was music with a floating, impressionistic quality which built on the innovations of Evans' work with Miles Davis, but with a new dimension supplied by a rhythm section which didn't see itself as one.

'We knew we had something different and original that no one had done before,' Motian recalled years later in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. 'It was a different way of playing in the context of a trio. It wasn't piano, bass and drums, it was music made by three people.'

The remarkable rapport between the three was shattered by LaFaro's death when he was 25, and although Motian's association with Evans lasted on and off for many more years, their regular partnership was curtailed by the pianist's descent into drug addiction.

The drummer however formed fruitful new associations with other musicians, notably pianists Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley, bassist Charlie Haden, and guitarist Bill Frisell.

Although known for subtlety and leaving space in his accompaniments for musicians who generally didn't need the drummer to serve as a metronome, Motian never lost the pulse of the music.

Jarrett, who encouraged Motian to study the piano to aid his development as a composer, recalls him once falling off the stage, and in the same moment reaching up to tap a cymbal so that there wouldn't be silence from the kit for as much as a beat where he hadn't intended it.

He developed into an accomplished composer, and later performances and recordings struck a balance between his own originals, standards, and tunes from the worlds of folk, country and pop music, as well as jazz. In 2007 with Gil Goldstein, Pietro Tonolo and Steve Swallow he recorded Your Songs, a collection of Elton John tunes.

Motian's first instrument was the guitar, and the last three decades of his career saw him working more frequently with guitarists than pianists, often without a bass, although one of his late albums - called simply by the names of the participants Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian - released in 2006 turned out to be an inspired combination with Motian and bassist Carter making a formidable partnership.

He wearied of touring in his later years and confined his engagements to New York venues, especially the Village Vanguard where he had made much musical history.

Take Three

Three notable albums featuring the drumming of Paul Motian.

The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (Riverside, 2005): all the music recorded by the classic Bill Evans Trio, featuring LaFaro and Motian, on Sunday, June 25, 1961, 10 days before LaFaro's death in a car crash. Previously released in various editions, most notably as Sunday at the Village Vanguard - generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest live albums in jazz - with other material released shortly afterwards as Waltz for Debby. The trio was at the peak of its telepathic rapport, and the musicians at the height of their individual powers.

Sound of Love (Winter & Winter, 1995): back at the Village Vanguard for a trio recording, but this time with the much less conventional line-up of guitar, tenor sax and drums. Frisell, Lovano and Motian already had more than a decade of fruitful collaboration behind them, and are on sparkling form for a programme including both original compositions and Monk and Mingus originals.

Selected Recordings: Rarum (ECM, 2004): Motian's own selection of his favourite recordings for the ECM label includes tracks dating back to his debut as a leader on 1972's Conception Vessel and a range of others up to 1985, including collaborations and sideman work. A good overview of a notably creative phase in a long career.