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A decade after his passing, Paul Motian is still with us

Paul Motian
Steven Sussman
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Paul Motian, pictured at the Blue Note in 2010 performing with Chick Corea and Eddie Gomez.

Paul Motian's sound and percussive presence, like the homonym in his name, represents energy in transit. As we observe a decade since his passing, he still feels present, his spirit informing the approach of many of today's bands.

From his time with Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd and Arlo Guthrie, and later with his own groups, Motian's touch propelled every ensemble he joined. He presented a specialized approach to dealing with rhythm, earthy but untethered. The discipline and freedom that he balanced catalyzed others into giving their best, and operating within a similar space.

Tribute to Paul Motian
Nate Chinen
Joe Lovano, Thomas Morgan, Francisco Mela and Bill Frisell paying tribute to Paul Motian at The Falcon on July 1, 2021.

This past spring, The Falcon, a leading arts space in the Hudson Valley, hosted a five-star concert in tribute to Motian. Organized by Michael Patrick Kelly, director of the fine new documentary Motian in Motion, it featured an assembly of some of the drummer's closest compatriots: saxophonists Joe Lovano and Tony Malaby, guitarists Bill Frisell and Steve Cardenas, bassists Larry Grenadier and Thomas Morgan, singer Rebecca Martin, and pianists Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell. (Standing in for Motian on drums was Francisco Mela, who did an admirable job.)

This one-time cooperative bore immediate evidence of Motion's ongoing contributions to music. Some of these collaborators came to prominence in part through his encouragement and endorsement. And they were convening around his compositions, which employ a distinct and personal language — and have continued to circulate widely, without ever yielding all their secrets.

His capacious musical identity prompts the question, "What was Paul Motian like in person?" And just as Motian in Motion provides a rare peek into the life of the man himself, we decided to check in with two longtime Motian associates, Crispel and Bro. To hear them tell it, the time they spent offstage with Motian yielded as many memories and information as their time with him in performance.

This I Dig:

Jazz United is produced for WBGO Studios by Trevor Smith.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.