Paul Motian interview & discography

Backstage with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian, late ’90s.
Backstage with Joe Lovano and Paul, late ’90s.
I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard Paul Motian. I was a sixteen year old record store employee, and playing in the store was Keith Jarrett’s 1966 recording of “Margot” from “Life Between The Exit Signs.” As the music began I stopped in my tracks, struck by a conception of drumming more adventurous, more complex, and more musical than anything I had ever heard before. In place of traditional timekeeping patterns were extraordinarily detailed rhythmic phrases alternating with carefully sustained brush strokes and deliberate silences, each phrase simultaneously a response to the phrase preceding it and to Jarrett’s piano improvisation, with Motian’s performance slowly rising and falling in complexity from the beginning of the piece to it’s end. As I listened, I thought, “this is exactly how the drums always should have been played.”

Of course, before Paul Motian, drums were never played this way. Even today when musicians first hear Motian, they marvel over the uniqueness of his conception. His music is a fusion of opposites: gentle and violent, acoustic and electric, structured and free, complex and primitive. The primitivism is, of course, deceptive; the complexity, subtle. To hear Paul Motian play is to enter a highly personal world, a world as demanding of the listener as it is rewarding.

Perhaps as a result of his uniqueness, Motian himself is impossible to pigeonhole. I’ve heard him referred to as a legend by an audience member at one of his performances. Journalists often lump him together with many of the avant-garde drummers of the sixties. Yet how many avant-gardists have been hired to play with swing era giants such as Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge? How many jazz drummers Motian’s age can execute rock rhythms with an appropriate feel, and without altering their musical identity? How many drummer-bandleaders can claim to have composed several albums worth of strikingly original compositions? More importantly, what other modern jazz drummer, with the exception of Roy Haynes, can claim to have been a stylist and an innovator during several stages of jazz’s evolution?

Most artists reach their prime in their youth and stagnate thereafter. Motian became a prominent hard-bop stylist in the fifties, and yet has continued growing ever since, becoming a major innovator who helped to create the drumming styles of the sixties, and a brilliant bandleader and composer in the seventies and eighties. Now in the nineties he is more prominent than ever. He simultaneously leads an all-star trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell and his new six piece “Electric Bebop Band.” His recorded output during the last five years includes 11 albums as a leader or co-leader, with many more as a sideman. And three years ago, after countless appearances as a sideman over the past four decades, he debuted as a bandleader at New York’s most prestigious jazz club, The Village Vanguard.

I recently had the pleasure to question Motian about his ideas on himself, jazz and drumming. His unpretentious comments reveal how his development evolved as a matter of course, given his approach to making music on the drums.

Chuck: What was the earliest music you heard that influenced you?
Paul:     The records that my parents had. All the sort of Middle Eastern or mostly Turkish 78s that my parents played on the wind-up phonograph. And also they used to go sometimes to these Sunday picnics, where there would usually be a live band playing this kind of music. Of course the only drums was the dumbeg, you know? And I was attracted to that right away. That’s when I was what, three, four years old, five or six years old?
Chuck: That’s an early influence!
Paul:     Sure. I mean they were playing those records when I was that young.
Chuck: Did you have any idea that you might want to be a drummer?
Paul:     At that time? No. I was attracted to it… Also, I’ll tell you what, some other music that influenced me was the music I heard in church, which was Armenian religious music, with the organ and choir. I was attracted to that too. And that was when I was very young. You know, I’m talkin’ about pre-school age. So those were the musics that I heard at that age. I didn’t hear any jazz or anything (laughs), my parents didn’t know shit about jazz! That’s the music that they played and that’s the music that I heard. That’s the music that I was first attracted to.
Chuck: Did those musics influence your approaches to composing or drumming?
Paul:     Well, I think when I hear some of the music that I write, it has those influences in there.
Chuck: Some of the flavor?
Paul:     Yeah. Sort of the minor chords and scales. That’s definitely in there. Like the tune “The Storyteller” or “Mode VI.” And also I’ve got new tunes that have those scales in it.
Chuck: Did it influence your drumming?
Paul:     I don’t think so, because what attracted me to the drums were the first drum lessons and then hearing Gene Krupa and then Max Roach, and all of that. That’s what got me playing the drums.
Chuck: What strikes me about your playing in the 1950s is that you were a solid hard bop drummer, but not nearly as original and innovative as you later became. You have your own feel and your own sound, but, for example, the content of your solos reminds me of Max Roach. I don’t know if it strikes you that way…
Paul:     Sure it does, because I was very much influenced by him, man. I listened to him a lot, as many other drummers did too, I’m sure. And (laughs) I tried my best to do what he was doin’.
Chuck: What was it about Max Roach in particular that attracted you to his playing?
Paul:     He was more into the Bebop. I was going to say jazz, but you can’t say jazz because you’d have to put Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa in that too, you know? And of course I liked them too, but Max was the one that stood out to me. And also, I was never really a Buddy Rich fan, I must say.
Chuck: Why not?
Paul:     Because to me that was more technical. I mean, I admired it and I respected it, he was a great technician and played great. Even today, you listen to some of that stuff he played with Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, some of that shit’s great, man. It’s really good. But somehow Max stood out more to me. Just from the sound and the rhythmical patterns and what came out from him was somehow more hip than the other shit.
Chuck: Some of your early recordings also remind me of Philly Joe Jones.
Paul:     Sure. Philly, and Kenny Clarke, those were my people, but at this point Art Blakey is high up on that list, man. I listened to him too, you know, but my playing, listening to it now, came more from Max.
Chuck: Would you say that Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones were your three favorite players when you were coming up?
Paul:     Yeah, pretty much. But I hadn’t heard very much of Chick Webb or Baby Dodds or Sid Catlett, who I’m sure I would have influenced me if I’d heard them then. But Max was pretty much one of the first influences, because I used to hear Max when I was still in High School and I used to hear jazz broadcasts on the radio from New York. As a matter of fact I remember sending away for records that had Max on it, 78 [RPM] records, got ‘em through the mail. They advertise on the radio and I’d send for it. Or Kenny Clarke. This was pretty early.
Chuck: How about Kenny Clarke? What did you like about him?
Paul:     Some of the early shit I heard from him was with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Something about his thing was a little more not-so-correct, like Max. (laughs) You know what I mean? That was hip too, but in a different way. You have to remember that Kenny Clarke was before Max Roach. I guess Kenny Clarke, it was something about the swinging way he played brushes on the snare drum at such fast tempos, and the fact that he seemed to get so much out of so little drums. That’s what got to me about Kenny Clarke.
Chuck: How about Philly Joe Jones?
Paul:     Philly Joe was kind of hip in another way. The Philly Joe that I remember that I heard was with the Miles Davis Quintet. His playing was kind of ultra-hip with that quintet. The thing about Philly Joe’s playing was that somehow his ideas and his phrasing, when he soloed and played fours and eights, you really knew where he was in the tune. So I learned from that.
Chuck: There’s a philosophy prevalent now where younger players are placing a lot of importance on learning the styles of older musicians. I was wondering what your opinion is regarding that, because it sounds like at the time you were a younger player, you also studied the guys that came before you and learned their styles thoroughly…
Paul:     Sure. Definitely.
Chuck: … and I was wondering what you thought of that whole philosophy, of the importance of learning tradition.
Paul:     Well, I heard people say be your own person, or don’t listen to anyone else and do your own shit. I guess there’s something to say for that, but I think that basically you have to go back, you have to listen to the masters and the tradition first, then develop your own stuff, come out of that and then be your own self. No way should you dismiss that. That’s how I learned, from listening to other people, people that I liked. Like when I heard Kenny Clarke on record, I loved what he was doing, you know? And you try to play like that until you get your own shit together, and then it becomes part of you hopefully, but then your own self comes out on top.

I ran across Gil Evans in Central Park one day, and the conversation got into this thing about studying and learning, and he said that if you hear something that interests you, you’ll try to figure it out. In other words he was saying, like, let’s say I heard a Duke Ellington tune, and it was arranged or had a certain sound that intrigued me enough that I wanted to find out what it was, so then I would learn how to do it myself.

Chuck: What do you think of the trend toward de-evolution in jazz in the past 15 years: younger musicians going back to standards and playing and dressing as musicians did in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s?
Paul:     Maybe that’s what has to happen before it picks up again and starts going in the right direction, you know? Because, I mean, Coleman Hawkins ain’t around, you know, to name one (laughs), Art Blakey’s not around, Miles Davis ain’t even here anymore (laughs). I mean, first of all, think about all the great players that happened to be around at the same time. I mean, just take a year, like 1950. You got Louie Armstrong. You got Duke Ellington. You got Miles. You got Sonny Rollins. You got Coleman Hawkins. I mean, you got Jack Teagarden! And it’s all sort of within this one bubble, all of these great people, all at the same fuckin’ time, man! Is there going to be any time in the future when that’s going to be happening again? I don’t think so, man. So maybe it has to go back to square one and start all over (laughs). Who knows? I don’t know.

Also now there’s a lot of other kinds of music around that wasn’t around then. You know? Like, there was no fusion at that time. There was no rap. There was no rock and roll. Maybe you had rhythm and blues…

Chuck: But what’s your assessment of that kind of music?
Paul:     Ah, it sucks! (laughter) But, I mean, I’m only one person, man.

In 1940, jazz was the popular music of the day. When I was in high school and I went out to hear music, most of the stuff I heard was big band stuff. I was in high school between 1946, ’47, ’48. I went to ballrooms, not nightclubs. Bands were playing for dancing but I was in the front row there listening to the music with a bunch of other people who were into the music. That was the popular music of the day, man. It’s not today! So I think that has a lot to do with what’s going down.

Chuck: Listening to your recordings, it sounds like your own style developed very rapidly between 1960 and 1964 .
Paul:     I think that probably started with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro. I think that trio triggered it, because all of a sudden the music was different, it wasn’t piano in front with rhythm section accompaniment, or a group with the bass and drums always the anchor, playing the time, and other people playing on top of that shit. All of a sudden it changed with Bill, because of the way Bill played and the way Scott LaFaro played. The very first time I played with Scott LaFaro I had a hard time, man. It was hard, you know? I said “hey, wait a minute man, this is a little different,” so I wanted to get inside of that, and by doing that, then that trio became one voice. This was the first time that this kind of shit was happening. It wasn’t happening before Bill and that trio, you know? So that trio kind of started that kind of shit.

You might get an argument with that. Other people may say, “Well, I started it,” or someone else did. But for me, that’s when my playing started to change.

Then all of a sudden I got turned on to Paul Bley, and in the ‘60s shit started changing and started becoming a lot more free kind of playing, and I got involved in that, and that also started changing me more and more until, you know, it just kept growing in that direction.

Chuck: Did you have some sort of a revelation at some point during that period?
Paul:     No. It never came like at one point, bam!, like that.
Chuck: It was gradual.
Paul:     Yeah.
Chuck: And it was reacting to the people you were playing with.
Paul:     Yeah.
Chuck: Do you think if you didn’t hook up with Evans your whole personality might have taken a different direction?
Paul:     Maybe, maybe. Well no, I don’t think so, because eventually I would have hooked up with Paul Bley (laughs). Because in the ‘60s there was a lot of shit goin’ on, and I wanted to be part of that. That was one of my main reasons why I quit Bill Evans in the first place. I mean, playin’ with Bill at that time out in California at Shelly’s Mann-hole, I thought the music sucked, man. It wasn’t happening for me. These cats had me playin so soft, I said “man, well what am I doing here?” Meanwhile back in New York there’s all this great shit going on. So I said “Hey Bill, later man, this is not happening for me anymore.” He begged me not to leave him, especially on the road like that, it’s a terrible thing to do. I wouldn’t want anybody to do that to me. But man, I had to leave. I left.

I know myself, man, I know that I’m not goin’ to sit still for nothin’, even today, I’m going to look for a creative way of playing, man, something that I’m going to feel is musical, so even if that hadn’t happened, I’m sure that I would have done something else. I wouldn’t have stayed in one place.

Chuck: What would you say is the central concept of how you approach the drums, that would distinguish you from everyone else?
Paul:     Playing the drums like it’s not really drums, it’s just an instrument that’s an extension of you. The playing that’s coming out of me is coming from the music that I’m hearing, the people that I’m playing with, the music that I’m playing on the drums.
Chuck: I seem to remember you saying at a clinic that you gave at Pittsburgh that I went to, that every time you sit down you try to approach the drums as though you were playing them for the first time. Is my memory correct?
Paul:     What you said is exactly right. Because sometimes I’m still playing stuff on the drum set that I’ve never played before, because I’m not thinking drum set, I’m not thinking of cymbals and drums. Hopefully, what’s coming out is an extension of me and what’s inside me. Sometimes I’m lucky my hands and arms and feet don’t get tangled up within one another! Because I’m not thinking technique, and I’m not thinking right hand, left hand, or right foot, left foot (laughs), or tom-tom or snare or whatever. A lot of times my eyes are closed and I’m just playing. I know in my head where the instrument is, all the different parts of the instrument. And I just go ahead and play, and whatever ideas are in my head, hopefully they’ll come out.

I remember a conversation I had with Red Garland, the piano player who played with Miles. He said if you hear the idea in your head, somehow you’ll get it out on your instrument, whether you have the technique for it or not. And I always believed that, man. Maybe it will be a little sloppy at times. (laughs) But if you hear that shit, it will come out. And, as recently as this record date I just did last week, we were playing some fours and eights, and I played some stuff that I never heard before. There are certain patterns and certain ideas that I’ve been playing over the years that I may fall back on…

Chuck: Do you consciously think when you are playing to not do some of those things?
Paul:     No. No, I don’t think so. There may have been a time when I did. But not any more.
Chuck: When was that time?
Paul:     Well, just that I always wanted to play something different and something new, you know? But I don’t think that’s so important anymore.
Chuck: Why?
Paul:     I don’t know, just from my experience of playing, the way I am now, you know? It’s not so important to be different and to be new. I mean, that shit’s going to happen because I’m me. That’s not such a conscious thing as it was years ago. Years ago it was always that thing about just wanting to be different, just to be new.
Chuck: It seems like you were one of the first guys, if not actually the first guy, who began to eliminate repetition in your timekeeping patterns.
Paul:     Well, I don’t know man, Tony Williams was too, don’t you think?
Chuck: Well, you made those pivotal recordings with Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1961, and Tony Williams joined Miles Davis in 1963. I think you were definitely among the first guys. You were also one of the first guys to phrase across the bar lines. Was that from listening to, and trying to complement, Evans’ phrases?
Paul:     Could be, I don’t know. I mean I never thought about playing across the bar lines. I’m hearing melodies, I’m hearing what Bill is playing and what Scott is playing, and also I’m hearing the song that we’re playing, I’m following the structure.
Chuck: It sounds like you’re not thinking about drums at all, is what you’re saying. It sounds like when you’re playing you think of a lot of different things besides the drums.
Paul:     Yeah, right. I mean, I went through drum shit, I started playing when I was about twelve years old, I went through drum books and I played all that shit. So, not thinking drums, I’m thinking about what’s happening with the song, I’m thinking about what the other players are playing and doing with the song. So I’m not thinking of bar lines. If it’s going to cross bar lines then it’s going to cross bar lines. That’s not conscious, you know?
Chuck: … and you don’t really analyze your own playing that much, you don’t introspect that much?
Paul:     No, I mean some of the stuff that you showed me, what you took off records of my playing, that blew me away, I didn’t think that’s what was happening. And I don’t think I could play that.
Chuck: That’s interesting to me because your conception of playing the drums is so original, so radically different from anyone else’s conception, but what you’re saying is that the development of your style was not deliberate, it’s just the way you happen to be.
Paul:     I guess so.
Chuck: It almost sounds like you’re not really “guiding the ship,” that it’s just sort of going where it goes, and it just happened to go all these different places.
Paul:     That’s true, that’s true.
Chuck: Is that somehow the essence of how you got to be the way you are? How did you get to be so original?
Paul:     I don’t know. It’s also like they say about being at the right place at the right time. I mean, I didn’t call up John Coltrane and say, “Hey man, I want to play with you.” I didn’t even call up Bill Evans. Somebody called me.
Chuck: Another thing that strikes me about your playing is the way, when you’re playing time, that you’ll alternate different combinations of the components of your drum kit in order to change the texture of your sound. No other drummers I’ve ever heard use texture as an element of musical interest the way you do. For example, you’ll be keeping time, and then all of a sudden for a few beats you might leave out the ride cymbal. And it will have the effect of, for example, a painting where suddenly the backdrop changes, while the foreground stays the same. It will have a very dramatic effect, and then you’ll bring it back in and that creates another effect…
Paul:     I’m sure you’ve heard the recording of Baby Dodds. That ten-inch record where he’s playing and demonstrating different beats and stuff? Check it out man. He’s playing a solo, and leaves out the bass drum, and then he brings it in. When he brings it in, that shit takes off like a motherfucker. Then he takes it out. That’s important, that shit. That really influenced me.
Chuck: Something else that reminded me of you on that recording was that his march beat is very similar to your march beat.
Paul:     Well, I listen to him, man, I still listen to him. He was great. I wish I knew about him back when he was around. He was still around in the fifties, man. But I wasn’t aware of him that much.

Look at Art Blakey, sometimes he’s playing along, and all of a sudden, maybe at the bridge or in the top of the tune he hits a cymbal WHAM!, really hard, and then he chokes it. That’s beautiful, man. Art Blakey was a motherfucker, man, I appreciate him more now than I did back then. I heard him at Birdland when he had his first band with Horace Silver, and Lou Donaldson, Hark Mobley, Clifford Brown, and Kenny Dorham, man, that shit, he was smokin’ boy! How old was Art Blakey then, thirty maybe. He plays so fuckin’ great. That’s some great music. I ain’t heard no drummers today like that. Well, I can’t say that, I’m not out there, I don’t hear the cats, maybe there’s some people out there.

Chuck: You have a very unique approach to playing rock-based rhythms, where you sometimes imply half-time and double-time by doubling or halving the placement of your backbeat, and occasionally you even displace those backbeats ahead or behind a beat. It completely opens up that kind of music, and I’ve never heard any other drummer approach those rhythms quite that way.
Paul:     Again, it’s just what I was saying before. It’s just music, man. I’m not thinking about backbeat, rock, or whatever. I’m thinking music. There’s a specific tempo that’s stated in the very beginning, and that’s already there. I don’t have to force it on to everybody else and myself included. I don’t have to enforce it. It’s happening already. I don’t have to do shit. I could have just stayed there and not played a fuckin’ note. They’re playing along, they’re playing that speed, you know? And so, what I’m doing is trying to add some kind of music to that. I mean, whether the backbeat comes on the backbeat, or the frontbeat, or the sidebeat, or what-the-fuck-ever-beat! It don’t matter, man, but it should be some kind of music there. It should satisfy me. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a drag for the other musicians, what I’m doing, maybe I’m not as supportive of them as I should be. But fuck it, it’s too bad then, you know what I mean? (laughs) They’re out there.

But I could tell you a story. I was on the bus one time, and on the bus was a piano player, John Bunch, who I played with with Zoot Sims. And he said, “You know Paul, I’ll never forget the time when you were playing with Zoot and just before the set started Zoot came up to you and said, “Hey Paul now, I want you to play 4/4, man, I don’t want you to play that fucked-up shit you play!” Right? So, in instances like that I’ll be thinking, “Well, could be some truth to this thing about me…” Maybe I’m not being supportive of, in that case, Zoot. He didn’t want to hear me breaking up the time and stuff like that. He wanted to hear straight-ahead time, right? Same thing with Lennie Tristano too. Lennie liked to have bass and drums play that 4/4 time and then he would play around it, and play over the bar lines. So in some instances I had to tie my hands down a little bit, you know what I mean?

But it’s also difficult for me to play more myself under those conditions because of the music that they were playing, and what it required of myself and the rhythm section, you know? So there were some kind of rules in those days that I had to abide by.

Chuck: Did any of the musicians you worked with ever offer you any advice or make musical comments that struck you as interesting?
Paul:     I remember Monk asked me to sing him my ride beat. He said, “Sing me what you’re playing on the cymbal.” So I sang, “ding DING-a ding, DING-a ding, DING-a ding, DING-a ding.” He said, “The next time you play, play ‘ding din GA-ding, din GA-ding, din GA-ding’.” So that’s what I did. And that helped my feel and the way I felt, the way my time is my beat. That helped me grow in how I play time. To try to think of all the notes, man, all the notes that you’re playing on the cymbal, and the quality of the notes.

One time Lennie Tristano said something to me about what he heard in my sound. He wasn’t suggesting anything to me. He just said, “Paul, when we play fours, your fours sound like a drunk falling down a flight of stairs!” (laughs) So, for me, I took that as a compliment, and the next time I took my fours I tried to think as if I was a drunk falling down the stairs, and tried to improve what I did the time before, you know?

Chuck: A lot of people wouldn’t take that as a compliment. Why did that strike you as a compliment?
Paul:     Because it was different, it meant that I played different. I played something else, you know? I played something that wasn’t usual.

Another time I remember reading in a Downbeat blindfold test by Lennie White, played one of my records, and he kind of put me down in a way, he said, “Boy, that drummer sounds like he’s playing on tin cans.” I took that as a compliment! I thought that was great, I mean, what a sound that is! That’s a great sound, man, tin cans? I love that sound, man. Even now, sometimes I’ll play where I hit the drum more on the rim than the drum, and get that sound. That’s a different kind of sound, almost just playing as if the stick is hardly hittin’ the drum, it’s more hittin’ the rim, but it’s not just the rim sound, it’s the drum sound too. You know what I’m saying? It’s kind of like an echo kind of a thing? I love that, man.

Chuck: When you play a roll, you don’t usually play it with both sticks on the same drum at the same time. You’ll have one stick on one drum, and one stick on another, or you’ll be moving around the whole drumset, distributing the strokes between the cymbals, the drums, the hi-hat. I don’t know any other drummer who does that.
Paul:     I don’t know! (laughs) I know that I do that, but I don’t know why. I guess that when I’ve done it, what happened I thought was good and I liked the sound.
Chuck: Most people focus on one component at a time. But you’re always blending different parts of the drumset into one sound.
Paul:     Well, that’s nice, that’s nice! (laughs) See, I didn’t really know that, man, that’s interesting. I know that I do that, but I never thought about it. I wouldn’t consciously say to myself, “OK, now I want to play a roll on two different drums.” That thought would never come to me. That’s automatic. That just comes out. I mean, think of a piano player. A piano player’s playing, he’s not thinking “I’m going to play a…” I mean there’s no time to think of that shit beforehand, right? If a piano player thought, “Well, now I’m going to play this chord, now I’m going to play that chord, now I’m going to play this run,” fuck it, that shit past, it’s gone already. There’s not time to think about that shit. The same thing with the drums, man. If I started thinking about that before I played it, I’d be behind! (laughs) People’d be steppin’ all over my ass, man! Shit! (laughs)
Chuck: I’d like to ask you something about your ballad playing. Most drummers during ballads are just doing timekeeping, but there’s another element that you add to ballads that they don’t even think about, and that’s the way you alternate different tone colors and sounds. For example, you might be doing a roll on your rivet cymbal. Then you’ll let it ring for a moment. Then there might be two beats of silence, then you might play on the snare drum for a couple measures. Then you might start playing a time-keeping pattern on the ride cymbal. Every time you change the sound and the tone color, it creates a dramatic musical effect, and that’s something you did that no one else has done.
Paul:     That relates to what I was saying before about my approach to the drums, trying to think musically, trying to make sense out of what I’m doing and trying to relate it to what else is happening.

If you had to sit down, you’d probably have to be a computer if you tried to put down on paper or in words what is actually going on during a piece of music. You’d probably fill twenty fuckin’ volumes, it’d be an encyclopedia, just from one tune, if you start actually putting down exactly what thoughts are happening… you know what I mean? It’s not so simple. Sometimes the simpler it sounds the more complicated the shit is.

Chuck: I can see that. Because to make things simpler, you have to make a decision what to leave out, just like you have to make a decision what to put in.
Paul:     Exactly.
Chuck: When you left Bill Evans and you started playing with Paul Bley, how did that different music alter your concept of drumming?
Paul:     Well, it seemed to me that that was an extension. Here I was playing with Bill, and at times with Gary Peacock, and then here I was playing with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock. And to me that was kind of an extension… well, I don’t know, it was different, I don’t know if extension is the right word. But it seemed to me at the time that happened that that was the direction to go into. It seemed to me that Bill Evans at that time was standing still, and we weren’t going anywhere. We had reached (laughs) the mountain top and that was it! And I kind of felt like with Paul Bley that there was another mountain here, man. And at that time, which was the mid-sixties, there was a lot of changes going on in music in New York. And hooking up with Paul Bley, it seemed like the music got even freer, even more open, and it was possible to play different, to extend the shit from what I was doing before. We kind of talked about just getting away from the normal way of playing, sort of playing more with the music as it was happening. I don’t think it changed me radically. Playing with Bill Evans I felt like I opened up some things just from what I was hearing from Scott. And playing with Paul and with Gary Peacock just seemed to open it up more, I just played what I heard and what these guys were playing, and I kind of went along with that and played… Some of the things we were doing with Paul, all of a sudden there was no restrictions, you know, there was not even any form, it was completely free, almost chaotic, you know? With Paul there was form on a lot of things, but for the first time shit was happening where it really just opened up. And then playing with Keith later just really took that again, even more.
Chuck: When you first heard people actually playing free, how did it strike you, coming from a background rooted so strongly in hard bop?
Paul:     I know what you’re getting at, but actually it didn’t strike me as being real radical or real different.

A lot of people at that time were into this thing about wanting to play different, wanting to explore more and get into different areas. Almost just for the fact to be different, you know?

Chuck: Do you miss that spirit today?
Paul:     No. I feel pretty much settled now in what I’m doing. I don’t feel like experimenting anymore, I really don’t. I feel like I can play however I want to play now, and it’s OK.
Chuck: What’s the attraction of playing free? What appeals to you about that as opposed to a different situation?
Paul:     Just that it’s very open and it let’s me play whatever I want to play. If I have an idea and it makes musical sense to do it, then I can go ahead and do it, I’m not restricted in any way to bar lines or form.
Chuck: What do you latch on to, though? For example, if you’re playing time, you know how the beat’s being subdivided, you know what the vocabulary is, you know you can move this here, you can leave this out. But if you’re playing completely free, it’s a completely blank slate. What do you latch on to that’s logical to determine what you play?
Paul:     You’re latching on to what you’re hearing, what the other people are playing, what you’re playing, what you started out playing, what melody is going on in your head, everything. You just latch on to whatever you can latch on to, man. And hopefully there’s plenty of things to latch on to.
Chuck: When I listen to you play free, I can tell you obviously find clear ideas to play and I can follow your thinking. But some other drummer playing in the same situation might say, “This music sounds good, but what in the world could I ever play to it?”
Paul:     Well, thank god I don’t never think about that. I don’t think like that. I just let it happen. I just go by what I hear and I just let it happen.
Chuck: So you’re not self-conscious…
Paul:     No. I’m acting on what I’m hearing and what I’m doing.
Chuck: You have a clear idea of what you should do and shouldn’t do.
Paul:     It’s not like what I should do or shouldn’t do, it’s what I do. And I have enough faith and confidence in myself and what I do that it’s right. If I start thinking about what I should do and I shouldn’t do, it would suck. It’s like the story Jimmy Garrison told me about the centipede. He’s walking along on the branch groovin’, and then some fuckin’ monkey looks at him and says “Hey, man, look at how you got all them legs, man, how do you know which leg to put down first?” And as soon as he says that, the motherfucker trips and falls off the tree. It’s the same thing. You can’t stop to think about that shit.

Once when I was playing with Charlie Haden, I told him that I couldn’t really get with the music, I can’t find what it is that I should do, whether I should play time or I play free. And Charlie said to me, “well, you’re the one that can do it and whatever you do, you be in control, you do what you think is right, I’m going to take it from what you’re doing.” In other words, instead of me thinking about what I should do or what I shouldn’t do, I should just do, and everything will be OK. And that’s what happened. When I was thinking about what I should do and what I shouldn’t do, shit wasn’t happening. Wasn’t happening, man. After I talked to Charlie and he said to me whatever I do is OK., and I should be in control, then I felt free to do what I wanted to do. And as soon as I did that, everything fell into place. Shit was swinging like a motherfucker.

Chuck: Are you switching over from your conscious mind to your subconscious mind?
Paul:     Yeah, in a way. In others words, when something starts happening and I start playing time, I’m not debating in my head, “well, I should play time now or I shouldn’t play time.” I just go ahead and do what I feel I should do. And when I do that, it happens, everything falls into place. If I feel like playing a rumba beat on a fuckin’ tom-tom, that’s what I do without thinking about it, it’s OK!
Chuck: So it sounds like the key is to get rid of any sort of deliberation.
Paul:     Yeah. Definitely. Definitely, man. Oh yeah. Sure. As soon as you start deliberating and thinking it’s that story I just told you, man. That’s the key. Definitely.
Chuck: How did playing in the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Keith Jarrett, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden alter your concept of drumming? It’s strange to me that that band never got more recognition. What’s your own assessment of that band and that music?
Paul:     It is strange in a way, what you say, because I go to Europe often now. And every time I go, no doubt someone will always mention Bill Evans to me, or the time when I played with Bill. Happens all the time. It just happened recently now in Italy. Hardly anyone ever says anything about Keith, or that band. And I don’t really know what the reason is. I guess the people hooked on to Bill more than with Keith somehow. And it seems like everywhere I go people associate me more with Bill and that trio than with Keith, whereas the time I spent with Bill and the time I spent with Keith is almost equal. Actually there was more records made with Keith.
Chuck: But how about in importance to you to your development, how would you assess both periods. Equal also?
Paul:     No. Well, I think with Keith there seemed to be more room for development. There was more time and more space left open to develop further than with Bill, because the music we were playing was more experimental. Bill wouldn’t experiment at all. In fact, I remember one time when I was playing with Bill with Gary Peacock, Gary and I tried to get Bill to play more experimentally and more free, and to play some more open kinds of pieces. He wouldn’t do it, he didn’t want to do it. He has no thoughts along those lines (laughs). As a matter of fact, one time when we were playing at the Vanguard I said to him “why don’t you start the set with that little Bach piece you played for me at your house.” No way, he wouldn’t do that. Bill didn’t want to take chances too much. He kind of had his way of doing things, and that’s what he wanted to do. Whereas Keith was more open and would take more chances, was willing to experiment more and try different things more.

It seemed to me with Keith it was more fun in a way. It was so open and so free that you could almost do whatever you wanted. It was almost like you didn’t even care whether the audience was there or not, or whether they liked it or whether they didn’t. It was quite different with Bill.

Chuck: The material you played with Keith was very eclectic. Some tunes were completely free, some of them were Bill Evans-ish, some of them were rock-flavored tunes, some of them were quasi-Latin tunes…
Paul:     Yeah, well I think that was the influence of the times too, you know? I mean, playing with Bill there wasn’t much rock and roll around, really. But playing with Keith, that was a whole different thing. Bob Dylan was strong on the scene, and the Beatles. That influenced Keith, it influenced all of us, especially Keith, and the music he was writing too. So we were getting into other areas. We’d never play semi-rock and roll kinds of things with Bill, never. But with Keith that was the times, you know? We’re talking about the very late sixties and the early seventies.
Chuck: And how did you react to playing that music and those rhythms?
Paul:     Fine. I mean I loved that shit too. It’s great, I loved Bob Dylan. I saw Bob Dylan on TV the other night, man, I couldn’t stand him, now, I would never go to a Dylan concert or buy a Dylan record. But in those days I think I owned about ten albums by Bob Dylan, and the Beatles and all that. I listened to all that shit, man, that shit was strong, so that influenced us, I know Keith loved that stuff. I think we recorded a Dylan tune. It was just fun to play, it was part of the scene, it was part of music.

Everything that’s going on around me that I’m aware of, it’s going to creep into the music, it’s going to creep into my playing. Sometimes consciously or unconsciously, it’s going to be there. Playing the music is me, it’s part of my life, and what influences me and my life is going to come out in my playing too.

Chuck: When you were with Keith Jarrett, you rarely played any swing music with walking bass and ride rhythms. Why was that?
Paul:     We weren’t into it! (laughs) We wanted to get away from that traditional stuff.
Chuck: But when I saw you reunited, playing with Keith again a few months ago, during the break I overheard him saying something to the effect of “Man, Paul’s playing his ass off, he’s swinging his ass off.” And he said, “We never used to play that way when we played together, we never tried to just swing, we were always trying to do something different,” as if he didn’t know you could do it. And he seemed so happy about the new approach of that particular night.
Paul:     So it’s exactly what I was saying to you, man, at that time when we were playing, in the late sixties and early seventies, that’s what people were into, just to do their damnedest to do whatever they could do to change the shit, to play something different, to try to create something new. And people would do things different just to be different, no matter whether it was good or bad. So that’s what was happening too, we were playing with Keith and all this different shit was happening with jazz, plus what I was saying before about Dylan and the Beatles. All that was happening, so that’s what we were playing, we weren’t playing swing.
Chuck: I notice that you and Charlie Haden play a lot more straight-ahead in settings now than you used to during the Jarrett years.
Paul:     Well, you’re talking about a different period in music and a development in music. It’s not like we played differently then, and then we threw it all away and now we’re playing straight-ahead. That’s all connected.
Chuck: And what’s the connection, what happened?
Paul:     That free kind of playing at that period is part of growing up, it’s part of the tradition, it’s part of development, it’s part of evolution. It’s there, it’s still there.

If I could give you an example, it’s like if I’m walking down the street, and walking in a regular, normal way, and somebody walks in front of me and I change my step, and whatever was in front of me is gone and I go back to walking how I was walking before, I’m still walking the same way, but what happened in-between still effects me too. That doesn’t go away, it’s still in my brain, it’s still a part of me.

Chuck: With all the emphasis on tradition, not very many people are trying to write original music, like you do. I don’t think much new has happened in jazz apart from your own groups, and I think a lot of the reason why your groups have produced such interesting music was because of the framework your compositions provided. A lot of people, including me, think that you are one of the most interesting composers around today.
Paul:     I don’t consider myself a great composer. What comes out, comes out, you know, and a lot of it is kind of basic. I’ll hear a little melody or find a melody on the piano that’s appealing to me and I’ll try to stretch that into a song, and I’ll revise it until something comes out that’s satisfactory to me, and then perform it.

A lot of the tunes that I’m playing now with the trio with Frisell and Lovano we’ve played for years, they’ve kind of grown in their own light too. I played on one of the tunes last night that we’ve been playing for years, and I always played a certain way on it, and last night I played something completely different than what I usually play. Joe and Bill were playing the melody to “Drum Music” [one of Paul’s compositions] in the tempo that we usually play—it’s not really a tempo, but it’s in the area of a certain speed, right?—and I played at a little less than half time. And it worked! So, there’s no rules, man, I guess is what I’m trying to say! (laughs)

Chuck: For you! But that’s what makes you unique.
Paul:     But I’m also still learning, man. I guess what I’m trying to say about last night, I learned something there. Here I am, I’ve been playing since I’ve been twelve years old, I’m going to be 62, and I learned something from my playing last night. You know?

I realized the other day, when I went to what they call “A Conversation With Foreign Writers”—this was a conversation between John Riving and Michael Ondaatje—and they were talking about the way they write, and I realized, listening to them, that there are no rules. I mean the same thing applies to writing literature as in music, man. You can make up your own form.

Chuck: What’s the most satisfying aspect of having your own band?
Paul:     Just that I can play the tunes I want to play! I can pick out the tunes and I can set the sets. I’m the boss, man. I’m excited about the Electric Bebop Band at this moment. For me that’s more the main thing right now.
Chuck: Now what is it that excites you about the Electric Bebop Band?
Paul:     It’s different that I’m going backwards. (laughs) I’m finding new ways to play old music.
Chuck: I think something that’s great is that your career seems to keep getting better the older you get. You’re more active now, playing with more people, more respected, better gigs, more recordings…
Paul:     Yeah, I’m at the best point of my life now than I’ve ever been, when I should be on the downgrade. And it’s not. It keeps going up. It keeps getting better and the best is still yet to come, I feel it, I know it. It’s incredible.

Tracing Paul’s Development: Some Recommended Recordings

Bill Evans New Jazz Conceptions (1956)
An excellent and underrated album in both Bill Evans’ and Paul Motian’s discographies. With regard to Paul, this album demonstrates his mastery of the hard bop vocabulary and of conventional drum technique, including solo exchanges that demonstrate the influence of Max Roach.
Bill Evans Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961
Scott LaFaro’s new approach to bass playing, as exemplified in these recordings, inspired the development of Paul’s unique style.
Bill Evans Trio ’64 (1963)
Paul Bley Turning Point (1964)
These two albums, both featuring bassist Gary Peacock and recorded only a few months apart, are instructive for showing the evolutionary leap that took place when Paul left Bill Evans to work with Paul Bley. (Note that Turning Point is missing some of the tracks from this recording session; a better mastered, more complete version of this session was issued on Savoy as “Turns,” but is long out-of-print.)
Keith Jarrett Life Between The Exit Signs (1967)
This, Keith Jarrett’s first recording with Paul and bassist Charlie Haden, is also my favorite. The quickness of Paul’s daring yet never-erring instincts and the incredible fertility of his imagination are on full display here. My experience of hearing Paul’s drumming on the composition Margot for the first time is described in the introduction to the interview above.
Keith Jarrett The Impulse Years: 1973-1974
Keith Jarrett Mysteries: The Impulse Years 1975-1976
So far as I’m concerned, all of the recordings Paul made with Keith Jarrett, whether on Vortex, Atlantic, Columbia, Impulse, or ECM, are important and worth owning. These comprehensive box sets from the Impulse years are a good place to start.
Paul Motian Paul Motian (1972-1984)
This box set of Paul’s first six albums as a leader on ECM is a treasure. The first two albums, Conception Vessel and Tribute, demonstrate why Paul and Charlie Haden were one of the most perfect drummer/bassist combinations in all of history. All six albums trace his growth as a composer and bandleader, culminating in the exceptional first albums by his quintet and trio featuring Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano.
Paul Motian The Complete Remastered Recordings (1983-1987)
In my view, Paul was the most important and innovative jazz composer and bandleader of the 1980s, a decade when most young jazz musicians were looking backward. This box set, along with the “Paul Motian” box set above, includes all of Paul’s recordings as a leader from this period, along with albums by Paul Bley and Enrico Pieranunzi.

Please note… there are many more outstanding recordings that Paul made, both during and after this period, that are historically significant and revealing of his unique approach…  but for this list I tried to limit myself to the recordings that I regard as the most historically significant, with a particular regard to the ideas expressed in the interview.

If you enjoyed reading this, you will also probably also enjoy Part Two of my interviews with Paul, where I had the opportunity to play him some of my favorite recordings of his in order to elicit his own assessments.