Missing Motian

When I heard the news that Paul Motian died, I was stunned. Somehow it took me by surprise. I was surprised even having heard that his health was not good and he had cancelled some gigs. Even with that knowledge it still seemed as if he would come back. I even hoped he would start touring again and that I could convince the Reykjavik Jazz Festival to bring him here. It seemed as if he would always be there.

Even more than the surprise I felt over the news was my surprise at my own reaction. I've been doing this long enough to see the passing of many of my heroes, but hearing this news was different… and at first I didn't know why.

It felt as if I'd lost someone I knew, yet I'd never met Motian, not even briefly. Of course I'd seen him play on countless occasions, but while I was able to summon the courage to introduce myself to other drummers I admired, Motian seemed untouchable. His dark sunglasses and the fact that he barely ever spoke onstage certainly factored into that. Yet for all his mysterious aloofness, somehow he connected with me in a way that was deeper than I ever knew.

The first thing I did when I heard he was gone was listen to his Bill Evans tribute album, which was the first Paul Motian album I owned. I nearly wore that one out. I bought it because it was reviewed in Modern Drummer and I recognized Bill Frisell's name from Naked City. Although I knew who he was, I hadn't really checked out Bill Evans yet. That album opened up a whole world of possibility for me. They were playing swing, but it didn't sound like any jazz I'd ever heard.

As I sat there listening, thinking about the immeasurable brilliance the world had just lost, it occurred to me that, after I bought that album, I had probably bought at least one album he was on every year thereafter. That constant thread throughout my musical development was something I took for granted. It just felt like I would always be able to pick up the latest thing with Paul Motian, knowing if he's playing it's probably going to be good.

All good things must come to an end.

And so I started contacting musicians, because I knew that he inspired so many people, and I organized a memorial concert featuring only Motian's original compositions. I think I did pretty good. I was hoping to get more drummers involved, but scheduling conflicts got in the way. Still, it's quite a lineup. Iceland has a disproportionate amount of talented jazz musicians, and most of the ones who are in town will be playing on this concert. We're playing tonight at the Nordic House in Reykjavik. (The Facebook event is here for more info on that.)

I decided to limit the material to Motian's own compositions to bring more attention to that side of him, especially for people who only know him as Bill Evan's drummer. He was a huge inspiration to me as a composer. His wrote deceptively simple melodies, full of phrases that seem completely logical but somehow never end up where you expect. I was already writing music when I discovered Paul Motian and Tony Williams also wrote music, and suddenly I didn't feel so weird. Drummer's can write too!

But his playing was really the thing that had me hooked from the first listen. He contrasts himself in any moment. He sounds simultaneously modern and old-fashioned, rough and smooth, loud and soft. He loved brushes, but when I saw him live sometimes he was ridiculously loud! He attacked the drums, even if he was playing soft. It reminded me of the expression "tough love." There was just something so unique about his playing. His sound. His timing. There was no one else who could do those things that way.

Last year I saw him on the cover of a French jazz magazine. The title was "Le Picasso De La Batterie." I couldn't agree more.

— Edit, Jan.24.2012 —
Here's the set list from the concert, which went amazingly well… considering that I organized it.

Set 1:
From Time to Time – Sunna Gunnlaugs, Þorgrímur Jónsson, Scott McLemore
Dance – Olafur Jónsson, Þorgrímur Jónsson, Scott McLemore
Owl of Cranston – Hilmar Jensson, Óskar Guðjónsson, Scott McLemore
Cambodia – Hilmar Jensson, Óskar Guðjónsson, Scott McLemore
Abacus – ASA Trio (Andrés Þór Gunnlaugsson, Agnar Már Magnússon, Scott McLemore)
Once Around the Park – Andrés Þór Gunnlaugsson, Agnar Már Magnússon, Þorgrímur Jónsson, Scott McLemore
Byablue – Kjartan Valdemarsson (solo piano)

Set 2:
Mumbo Jumbo – Frelsissveit (Haukur Gröndal, Óskar Guðjónsson, Birki Freyr Matthíasson, Þorgrímur Jónsson, Scott McLemore)
Jack of Clubs – Frelsissveit
Fantasm, One Time Out – Sigurður Flosason, Jóel Pálsson (saxophone duo)
The Story of Maryam – Einar Scheving, Jóel Pálsson, Óskar Guðjónsson, Kjartan Valdemarsson, Þorgrímur Jónsson
Trieste – " "
Shakalaka – ASA Trio
Mesmer – Everyone

4 Responses to “Missing Motian”

  1. Carl Michel says:

    Excellent! Congrats! Let me know when you can post sound.

  2. Hi Carl,
    Here's the first tune from the concert "From Time to Time" with the Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio. http://sunnagunnlaugs.bandcamp.com/track/from-time-to-time

    There might be more later. But unfortunately, I accidentally set the level too high so most of the concert is full of peak clips. However, on this tune, I'm almost all brushes, so I just barely got in under the clip-o-meter.

  3. Carl Michel says:

    Thanks Scott, the group sounds great. I hope to have a memorial performance here in Ann Arbor some time this year. Years ago I wrote to Paul to and asked to send some compositions. He graciously sent "From Time to Time", "Byablue", "The Hoax", "Conception Vessel", "Fantasm", "Shackalaka", "Birdsong", "Jack of Clubs", "Drum Music", "Abacus" and "Cathedral Song". I would be interested in sharing his compositions with others, maybe motion sickness might be interested. Let me know if you are interested in any of these compositions and if you know where I might be able to get my hands on some more of his compositions, I would be grateful. Sincerely, Carl Michel

  4. Hi Carl,
    I'm going to email you with a longer reply, but thanks for listening!