Paul Motian R.I.P

I usually only use this blog to report on what I’m up to, and I’ve never sat down and written about what another musician means to me before, but the news of Paul Motian’s death yesterday has made me want to do so. There are very few musicians who I don’t know personally who have been as important in my life as Paul Motian.

I have never met Paul Motian, and never heard him live. But I have listened so much to his records, transcribed and played his tunes, and been constantly inspired by his music and approach. I’m pretty sure he appears on a higher percentage of my record collection than anyone else… Here are a few thoughts on what I love about his music:

  • The tunes. I’ve always loved his writing, since first discovering the Lovano / Frisell trio in my teens. ‘Dance’ and ‘Folk Song for Rosie’ were the first I fell for. A couple of years ago I started a project of transcribing several of them, to get a better understanding of how they work (and also because I wanted to play them with my quartet). That process was one of the most important things I’ve done in my musical development. Paul Motian was one of the truly great jazz composers, someone with a completely personal and unique voice who with a short, often simple melody and a hint of implied harmony could create a complete world. Like with his drumming, the things that aren’t there (or that are subtly hinted at) are as important as the things that are. I’ve mostly stopped playing his tunes as I wanted to focus more on writing my own, but still can’t resist including ‘Abacus’ in the book.
  • Everyone who ever played with Paul Motian sounded better with him than they did without him. I can’t think of an exception to that rule!
  • It got better and better. The last few years have seen some of the heaviest Paul Motian records, and his playing pared down to an ever deeper core. There are very few musical greats who have continued to develop and go further every year – there are no Paul Motian records or projects that feel like easy or commercial choices.
  • Paul Motian’s musical vision and personality were so strong that you can be listening to a pianist playing an unaccompanied introduction to a standard on one of his records, and it is still unmistakably Paul Motian music. He didn’t need to touch the drums or write the tune to make that happen!
  • Always completely open and free, while always swinging as heavily as anyone.

There are lots of tributes and obituaries around, a few that I found moving are here:

and here:

and here:


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