Story and photos by Scott Kevin Fish
In 1972, Paul, as a leader, released his first album, Conception Vessel on ECM records. Two other albums have been released since. Tribute in 1975, and most recently Dance released in 1978.
I met Paul Motian at his apartment in Manhattan one afternoon. He answered the door dressed in army pants, Oriental shirt, and knitted cap. He is not a tall man, but Paul has a striking presence, especially in his dark brown eyes that have an observant quality.
The apartment was decorated with gongs, bells, maracas, plants, a piano, and a black five-piece drum set. “Almost everyone in the building is a musician,” Paul explained. The sound of a tenor sax seeped into the hallway. “Once I was in the elevator and a woman asked, ‘Is that you playing the drums?’ I said yes and told her if it was bothering her I’d try to keep it down. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘I like it! It sounds very good.’
“I started playing when I was about 13, in Providence, Rhode Island,” he began, puffing on a cigarette. “I was born in Philadelphia, but I grew up in Rhode Island. There was a guy who played drums a few blocks away from my house. When he would play you could hear it in the street. I was fascinated with it. He played in a Gene Krupa bag. I use to go over there and listen to him every once in awhile. I started fooling around at home with some wooden sticks, and finally he gave me a couple of lessons.
“After that I studied reading and syncopation with Emilio Ragosta and George Gear in Providence. George Gear use to be friendly with George L. Stone from Boston. I played with the high school band. I might have played a couple of dances and clubs with musicians from that band.” Motian thought in response to a question I’d asked about how many gigs he played in his hometown. There weren’t any gigs to speak of, and Motian could only explain it by saying, “It just didn’t happen.”
“Most of my career just sort of happened,” he told me. “People ask, ‘You mean you always played the drums?’ That’s true. I’ve always played the drums. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. It’s always been there, as sort of a natural thing. I just never thought about it that much. It was just something that I did.
“I heard a lot of music when I was a kid. My parents were born in Turkey. They were Armenian and they used to play a lot of Turkish music and some Armenian music. I remember my mother telling me that when I was around two years old, I was always dancing to this music. My parents would say, ‘Gee. Maybe he’s going to get into music some way.’
When the Korean War broke out, Paul enlisted in the Navy. “All my friends were being drafted in the Army and coming back frostbitten. That’s why I went into the Navy. Somebody told me about the Navy School of Music so I thought I would do it that way. I was stationed in Brooklyn, living off the base. When I got out of the Navy, I moved into Manhattan. I studied with Billy Gladstone, and then I went to the Manhattan School of Music for awhile and studied timpani with Alfred Friese and Fred Albright.
“That’s when I started playing around,” Motian continued. “The professional part of my career didn’t start until I was 24 or 25 years old, around 1955 or ’56. I use to carry my drums all over the city, man. I use to take them everywhere.” By the time Paul Motian got on the New York scene, the musical mecca of the 52nd St. days had all but ended. Charlie Parker died in 1955 and it was symbolically the end of an era.
“I’m sorry I missed that,” Paul said. “One of my favorite drummers was Sid Catlett. I never saw him play. The person that I did see play a lot and who was a major influence on me was Kenny Clarke. He was in New York at that time. Max Roach was also an influence. I first heard his stuff when I was a teenager. I liked it a lot.
“I remember one time going to a place where Thelonious Monk was playing. The drummer hadn’t shown up and the promoter knew I played the drums. He said, ‘Hey man. Go get your drums and you can play with Thelonious!’ I ran as fast as I could all the way home, got the drums and played that night with Thelonious. That was a thrill for me. Later on, I worked with him for a week in Boston.
“One time I was playing with Monk and I think the tempo picked up a little bit. At the end of the set I went over to him and said I was sorry; that I might have rushed a l i t t l e bit on that number. Monk said, ‘Well, if I hit you in the side of the head you won’t rush!’ Paul broke up laughing. “That’s great ad vice,” he said. “I’ve never rushed after that.”
Motian expressed sincere gratitude to the forces that be for the opportunities that he’s had in his musical career. Aside from Monk, there was a period when Paul Motian played drums with the Oscar Pettiford quintet and big band; and he has also been fortunate to have worked with several other premier jazz bassists including Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden and Gary Peacock.
Paul sat back in an easy chair. He’d run out of filter cigarettes and sat smoking one of my non-filters through a cigarette holder. I asked him if he could recall any pertinent discussions he may have had with some of those bass players that would interest other drummers.
“I’m trying to think back about Scott LaFaro and Bill Evans,” he said. “I know that we always made suggestions to each other about different things. I know there were really musical questions and discussions. I remember talking with Bill one time, thinking of different things. What if you had to play a tune that could take five, ten or fifteen minutes, and you had to play every quarter note in that tune differently? It’s just a suggestion or an idea to make you aware of the music. If you’re thinking about things like that, think what could happen!
“Bill and I use to play gigs together and we lived in the samebuilding. After Bill had been with Miles Davis, he had his own trio and was playing Midtown, I think at Basin St. His drummer couldn’t make it one night so Bill called me. Scott LaFaro was playing around the corner and he came by and sat in. It seemed like that was it! Bill liked it a lot and we just kept it together for about two years.”
I questioned Paul about one writer’s opinion that he and Scott LaFaro were responsible for the “freeing up” of Bill Evans.
“I think that might have been more mutual,” he answered. “Nobody was playing bass like Scott. Bass players played roots of chords all the time and this was the first time the bass was playing with the pianist. I guess that freed Bill. I played what I heard and tried to fit in with them. I never thought of playing that way,” Motian emphasized. “I’ve never pre-thought something. It seems like it’s always been something that’s happened through my involvement in the music and the musicians. I think it was something that just happened.
“I believe that ‘time’ is always there. I don’t mean a particular pulse, but the time itself. It’s all there somehow like a huge sign that’s up there and it says time. It’s there and you can play all around it. I guess playing with Bill Evans was a freeing up for me too.
“We had reached a really nice point just before Scott died. I remember the gig at the Village Vanguard after we made those recordings (Milestone 47002) and we were all real happy. It seemed that we had musically progressed to a really nice point and now we could really get going. A few weeks later, Scott was killed.”
Motian stayed with Bill Evans from 1964-65. “It got to a point where it didn’t seem like it was me anymore,” he said. “I didn’t seem part of it. I wanted to go in other directions because there was a lot of music happening in New York at that time.
“I played with Carla and Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and John Gilmore. It’s better now in New York, but I think that 1965 was one of the good periods in New York. That was around the time the Jazz Composers Guild was organized. I was playing a lot but I wasn’t making any money. I used to work for two dollars a night. That was it. That went on for a couple of years, but I managed.
“I took a couple of commercial gigs. I was working an Israeli club playing floor shows. Then I worked for awhile on the East side with a trio. I guess that’s how I survived. There are so many clubs now and so much happening. The loft scene and all that. At those times there were things happening in lofts but there was just no money in it. It wasn’t publicized as much, I think.
“Shortly after that, I got hooked up with Keith Jarrett. I met him at a gig he was playing with Tony Scott and he sounded great to me. He was about 19 or 20 then. Later on he called me and Charlie Haden and we did Keith’s first trio album. That was in 1967 and later on I played with Keith in Charles Lloyd’s band.
“We did a fantastic tour of Asia. That was a great experience. Then I went with Arlo Guthrie for awhile. Arlo’s bass player knew of me through my work with Bill Evans so he suggested me. Arlo had a hit record with Alice’s Restaurant and was about to start touring. I enjoyed that,” Paul said. “It wasn’t a big musical experience but it was fun. I can play country/western music: keep time with brushes and have fun. I did a couple of tours with Arlo and part of that would be the Woodstock Festival.
“Afterwards it was mostly Keith. A trio first and then Dewey Redman joined around 1972.” We spoke about some of the miscellaneous records that Paul had played on and two that he was most proud of were Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, (both Motian and Andrew Cyrille are credited with playing percussion instruments). When asked what he specifically played on that LP, Motian said he played on all of the tracks except “Circus ’68 “69” on which Andrew Cyrille is percussionist, and the monumental project Escalator Over the Hill by Carla Bley.
When Paul Motian started leading his own group, he ran into a few problems. He found that he had to have a knowledge of music “business” but more than that he became heavily involved with musical composition. “I’ve been studying piano and composition,” he told me. “I think that’s really important for drummers. All drummers should play a little bit of piano. If they’ve got something against the piano, then study vibraphone or xylophone or buy a wooden flute, man!
“My composition stuff is all recent. I never even dreamed that I could do that kind of thing,” Motian said with an air of pride. “When I got offered to do my first record for ECM, I put together some music and found out that I could do it. Plus, I had some good musicians to help. That’s what I’m working on now. I would like to get that together. That’s very important. I mean, it took me a year just to get a book together for my band!”
I was interested in knowing how Motian went from the initial composing of a piece to working it out with his band, to per forming it. Paul explained, “I’ll work it out myself first. When it seems satisfactory, then I ‘ l l write out parts and rehearse it. Maybe I’ll get the saxophone to play the melody. If it doesn’t sound right, I may make a few changes. I’ll do the same thing with the bass, and then rehearse the trio. The song grows from there.
“I would really like to get away from the normal format of chart, solo, choruses and chart again. I don’t really like that,” Motian said. “But, once I’ve written a tune and worked it with the band I don’t play it on the piano after that. Right now, I have maybe seven or eight things that I’m working on that I’m not satisfied with. I may scrap it all, I don’t know.”
Motian was kind enough to oblige my request that he play the piano. The tune was reminiscent of his writing on the Byeablue Keith Jarrett album. “That’s it,” Paul said when he had finished. “I’ll give that to Keith and he’ll play the shit out of it.” I told him that one of the qualities I admired most in his compositions was his use of space. Other than the melody line it is often difficult to separate what is spontaneous and what is arranged.
“Last year a woman in Canada wrote me and said she liked my albums because she didn’t hear any aggression in them. I don’t know if that’s good, though,” Paul laughed. “I can re member being angry and playing. Usually, the melody and some harmonies are written. I like to keep it spontaneous so that I can make changes. So that I can play a piece of music one time and play it differently another time. The melody will be the same, but the playing part can change.”
Because of the time spent on composing and leading his band, Motian has no desire or time to teach. He has done clinics and formed definite ideas about how he would teach drums. “I always had a thing about that,” he said. “If I ever teach, I’m not going to teach on a practice pad. To me, that doesn’t really have too much to do with the drumset. The drumset is your instrument, not the practice pad!”
Motian recently toured Europe with his trio and told me about a couple of weeks he spent teaching at a school in Den mark. “I was there for two weeks with two, one hour classes a day. I took a private student everyday for a half hour lesson. I had to come up with something new each day and that was a challenge.
“The first day I had them tune the drums,” Paul remembered. “There was a set of drums there that sounded terrible. I got the idea to have each drummer tune them to whatever he heard. By the end of the two weeks that was the best sounding drumset in that school,” Paul beamed.
“Mostly, I talked about music and the musicality of the drumset. What is the sound? People will listen to drummers and sometimes they don’t listen to the right thing.” Motian leaned forward in his chair. What is the sound of that drummer? What kind of sound is he getting? Each drummer has his own sound.
“All musicians should check out the tradition of their instruments. There were so many really great drummers. I’d like to bring that heart of drum playing back. People now don’t know about Shadow Wilson, Denzil Best, Kenny Clarke, Dave Tough, Chick Webb, Jimmy Crawford! And Baby Dodds! Some great drummers. Drummers today don’t know about how or what they played,” Paul said, shaking his head.
Motian explained that the styles of the really great drummers would never be obsolete. “Their type of playing is connected with the way people are playing today. It really is. Whether it’s used or not is another story. But, I think there’s a certain art to playing the drums that is missing today.”
When asked what he felt his function in a group was, Motian stated simply. “Adding to the music I love to play time,” he elaborated. “It depends on what kind of music it is! I think that’s great. It’s a happy thing just to play time and having that feeling in your body, bringing it to other people.”
“I don’t know if that’s contradictory to what I said earlier about playing time. How can you listen to the Charlie Parker Quartet with Max Roach and say that’s not good or that’s not fun? That’s beautiful music!”
Would Motian agree that the best ‘free’ drummers were also exceptional timekeepers? “Well, that comes back to the tradition of drums. I don’t think a drummer or anyone else can just start playing what’s known as ‘free’. Somebody said that the only ‘free’ music is when you don’t get paid. You can’t just start playing that way. It comes from a tradition and there’s a lot involved there.
When asked whether he still practices, Motian replied, “I try to play a little bit each day. Sometimes I make a mental note and sometimes I’ll even write down: ‘Play at least ten minutes a day on the drum set.’ I have to really feel like I want to do it. I don’t force myself. When I sit down and try to think about working something out, I’m never really happy. If I sit down and play the drums, like I’m playing in front of people, I’ll get into it more. Then I can play for awhile.”
On the floor tom I noticed a piece of paper with triplet exer cises written on it. Paul sat down at the kit, picked up the paper and started to play what was written. Then he stopped. “That sounded good this morning, but now it doesn’t sound so good.” He tossed the paper aside and went into a second solo to demonstrate the sound of his drums.
“This is an old Slingerland set,” Paul explained. “I’ve had it for years.”
The snare was an old chrome Slingerland, the tom-toms were 9X13 and 16X16. For a second mounted tom-tom, Motian had an old wood 5X14 Ludwig snare with the strainer and snares off.
“I have another snare drum that I like a lot,” Paul said. “It’s a deep wooden snare with ten lugs. I used that for a few years and then I switched to this metal one. I may go back to the wooden one.”
“People ask me about my cymbals,” Paul said as he tapped a sizzle cymbal. “That’s another thing that just sort of happened. Through the years you go through different cymbals until you get the sound that you like. I must have had my rivet cymbal for 20 years. It’s an old A. Zildjian.”
The second ride on the left was an old K. Zildjian. “I’ve got a Paiste ripple cymbal on the bottom of the hi-hat, and a K. Zildjian on top. I have a Paiste Chinese type cymbal that I use a lot. That’s what I use pretty regularly now.” Paul told me that this was the same set he’d used on his recordings and his pet drum seemed to be the 18″ bass.
“I think it’s deeper than most. This one gets a bigger sound than a normal 18”. I tune them until it’s satisfactory to my ear. I’ll tune them until it sounds good to me; until there’s some kind of interval between the drums and it sounds pleasant to my ears. But, I don’t say I have to tune a fourth here and a third there. I don’t get into that. Sometimes I might as an ear training exercise, I’ll play the drums and then go over to the piano to see what it actually is. But it’s hard for me to find out because I like the overtones in the drums. They hate me in recording studios for that. There’s no mufflers on the drums. Everything is wide open. It’s loud and there’s a lot of overtones. It’s hard to tune to specific notes because of that. Most of the time the studio engineer has me take off the head or put some damper on it, because it really raises havoc with their needles.
“I’m still not completely satisfied with recording,” Motian admitted. “ECM does a really fantastic job but I wonder if it’s possible to hear drums on a record the way I hear them when I’m sitting behind them? In a hall with bad acoustics I can’t play too loud or I ‘ l l wipe everybody else out.”
Does he consider himself a loud drummer? “No,” Motian said. “But I’ve had people tell me that I was too loud. Sometimes it’s interesting to hear other players in a bad hall. I learn a lot. Once I went to a concert where the drummer was playing well but you couldn’t hear the piano. I kept thinking, ‘I wish the drummer would just stop for two measures.’ He never did. He just played constantly and wiped out the piano. I don’t want people thinking that way about me.”
Remo Ambassador heads are on all of Motian’s drums except on the snare which was calfskin. It isn’t that he is so particular about a specific head as he is, again, about the sound. “On this last tour of Europe, Sonor Drums provided a set for me. I just took my trap case and cymbals. The drums seemed good but what I didn’t like about them was that they had clear plastic heads on them. That starts to mess with my sound. I changed a couple of heads and got a better sound.
“I don’t like heads when they’re real thick. I think plastic heads are made in three or four different thicknesses and each company is a little different. I like the heads that are on my drums now. It’s surprising that the calfskin head seems to stay in tune. It’s nice for brushes but the plastic heads are nice for brushes, too. Those clear ones aren’t very good though.”
Besides his regular drum kit, Motian plays some of the most inspiring percussion on various instruments. He is a master at using mallets in addition to brushes and sticks on the drum kit. “I’ve got a couple of boxes of percussion things I’ve collected over the years that I take around with me,” he said. “It’s just like colors to add to the music.
“I like the concept of Indian music,” Paul said. “Where you have an Indian playing an instrument like a violin or a sarot with the tamboura and drum. I think there’s a way of connecting that with what I’m doing. You have a melody instrument, the tamboura and a bass or a drum! You can do a lot in music with that.
“A lot of different music is coming together, which was inevitable. I had an idea to play all kinds of music. I don’t see why you have to be restricted. I’d like to play a piece by Charles Ives and then a standard. Then one of my compositions. Jazz fusion, music of the world like African, Indian, Asian, the Middle Eastern, rock & roll, country and western, rhythm & blues, bring it all together!”
Despite critical acclaim for performing and recording, the role of bandleader has been an uphill climb for Motian. In spite of the fact that he’s still on the ascent, there is much more than a spark of optimism in his soul.
“Managers can’t do anything with me because I don’t command $5,000 a performance and their commission isn’t going to be great. That’s the reality of it,” he said.
“My concerts have done very well. I’ve gotten very good reviews. It bothers me that I’m not playing as much as I would like to. I get calls for gigs with other people that I turn down. So far, it hasn’t been too bad. We’ve done two European tours, a few concerts in New York, and a couple of workshops and college concerts. Once I actually get to play,” he smiled, “it’s fantastic.”