Paul Motian: Recordings & Reactions

During the 1960s two new styles of jazz drumming developed. The first was an extension of the bebop drumming style whose roots extended back to the innovations of Joe Jones and Dave Tough in the 1930s. In it the functions of each of the drummer's four limbs remained the same, but one important element of the bop concept was virtually eliminated: repetition. The four most significant innovators and finest exponents of this new drumming style were Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Paul Motian. The second new style did away with timekeeping altogether, emphasizing instead rubato drumming cadences in place of precisely subdivided rhythms. The four most important innovators in this approach were Sonny Murray, Rashad Ali, Andrew Cyrill and Paul Motian.

Paul Motian did not begin his career as a musical innovator, however, but as a stylist who by the mid-1950s had thoroughly assimilated the vocabularies of his drumming idols Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and Kenny Clarke. His innovations in extending these styles began after joining the 1959-61 Bill Evans trio with bassist Scott LaFaro.

In the Evans trio, the traditional divisions between the soloist and accompanists became increasingly obscured, and interplay began to rival swing as a priority in the group's conception. Realizing that the pulse and meter of the music would continue to exist without being explicitly stated, Motian soon began doing away with the rhythmic landmarks that had been an important part of the bop style. For example, instead of closing his hi-hat on the second and fourth beat of each measure as was customary in bop, he would close it on any part of any beat, depending on the phrasing implied by LaFaro and Evans, in effect phrasing around the meter while retaining its structure. Through listening to and responding to his bandmates and following his own intuition, Motian created a new, non-repetitive drumming style.

Another aspect of Motian's style that emerged in the Evans trio, particularly during ballads, was his interest in creating a variety of contrasting tone colors and textures. These elements has been an important part of early jazz drum styles, but since the 1930s had been largely neglected. By the mid-sixties Motian's interest in his role as a colorist and his highly interactive, non-repetitive style led him into involvement with the jazz avant-garde. In this new music, drummers were usually freed entirely from timekeeping, yet with this new freedom came the even greater challenge of keeping the music coherent and interesting. Although not the first avant-garde drummer, Motian soon became the finest, and the only one to have both mastered and expanded tradition before contributing to the new music.

For this interview I played recordings for Paul representative both of the non-repetitive accompaniment style he developed with the Bill Evans trio ("Stairway to the Stars," "Everything I Love"), as well as later recordings representing his rubato, "free" approach to drumming ("War Orphans," "One Time Out"). Two pieces ("Shades of Jazz," "Rotation") have elements of both these approaches, as well as the traditional hard bop approach.

"Stairway to the Stars" from "The Second Trio" (1962)

Paul: Bill had a way of playing ballads that made me play in half-time, because the way he played made me want to play that way. Instead of quarter notes, I wanted to play half notes. The first time I ever did that shit was with Bill. When I listen to him now, it almost seems like he's doing that. He's not, but…
Chuck: He leave's so much space, though. He plays a note and lets it ring.
Paul: Yeah. So instead of me filling the space, I wanted to make more space. You know?
Chuck: Your approach to playing ballads is so musical that I think it should have had a much greater influence on other drummers.
Paul: Well, no, no, no, nobody wants that, man. The people that you're playing for are not going to want a drummer to play that way. I remember a gig playing with a—do you know the singer Tony Martin? He's a Las Vegas type 1930s and 40s movie-star singer. I was doing a gig with him one time, and he said to the conductor, "Look at the way the drummer's holding the brushes, and the way he's playing. That ain't right, is it?"
Chuck: On ballads most drummers just play quarter notes on the snare drum and two and four on the hi-hat. You introduced a whole new conception to ballads where you can make as much music as Bill Evans is making on the piano and Scott LaFaro is making on the bass…
Paul: Well, that's because I didn't care. I was playing for myself, also playing for Bill and for Scott or whatever the situation is, but I'm being very selfish in playing what I want to play and what I want to hear. Whereas the drummers you're talking about, they're accompanying the pianist or soloist or whoever, they're trying to lay down a foundation for that person to play on top of, so that that person can play space or go around the meter or whatever. If the drummer's not playing the 4/4, it's harder on the main voice to do what he's doing. And they're not going to stand for a drummer to play the way I'm playing. When I was doing that, I was being very selfish and feeling that I don't have to give them support, I'm playing music that I'm hearing, you know?
Chuck: But it seems clear to me that you're making better music than if you were just playing time.
Paul: To you.
Chuck: Well, yeah, to me. Certainly. But I think I'm right!
Paul: (laughs) Yeah. Go on.
Chuck: The other thing is, I would think that there would be a lot of musicians who would like that because it would stimulate them to play differently. You'd be improving the music.
Paul: Well, yeah, that happened to be the case with Bill and Scott, because that's what we were doing, but, I couldn't do that with Mose Allison. (laughs) You know? I mean, it's still going to be me, even with Mose Allison or whatever, and my time is gonna… my beat and my style, it's still gonna be me, but I'm not going to be playing as spacy as I was with Bill. That's why I love Bill. When I was playing with Bill I was also playing with a lot of other people. I played differently. I was more in the supportive role rather than 1/3 of the voice role.
Chuck: To me the way you played with Bill sounds supportive, but I'm thinking supportive of the music rather than of the weakness of the other players. It doesn't seem like it should be so difficult for them to keep track of the time during a ballad.
Paul: Well, I'm sure that they can, but it's just that's the tradition.
Chuck: Well, anyway, I think the way you approached ballads is…
Paul: Well, that might not have happened if I'd had never played with Bill and Scott. That was kind of a mutual kind of a thing that happened there. The very first time I played with Scott LaFaro it was difficult, man. I don't know if you've heard these recordings that I'm on with Bill with other people before we played with Scott. It was pretty straight-ahead, you know? There's a double record of Tony Scott where there's not one bar of a drum solo, and it's all 4/4 time. And so, playing with Scott [LaFaro] kind of loosened the shit up, and I started to hear that shit.
Chuck: You sure played great on these dates with Bill and Chuck Israels.
Paul: I didn't think I played well at all. I didn't like what I played on this.
Chuck: Really? I like your playing better on these dates more than I do on the Village Vanguard sessions.
Paul: Really?
Chuck: I think your playing opened up more by the time you did this.
Paul: I thought the opposite.
Chuck: Really?
Paul: Yeah. I mean there was no more Scott LaFaro, Chuck was playing pretty much straight-ahead, and I thought maybe I was doing the same thing, but maybe I'm wrong.

"Everything I Love" from "Life Between the Exit Signs" (1966)

Paul: I haven't heard this in a long time, man. It sounds very, very good. Boy, Charlie's [Haden, bassist] not playin' no 4/4 either, is he? It's almost like I'm hearing something for the first time, it's not me! You know what I mean? (laughs) It's wild!
But you see, I'm playin' from what I'm hearin', I'm not playing from just—I'm sort of reacting, and what's coming out is what's coming out, man.
Chuck: But if you put any other drummer in there, they wouldn't be reacting like you are. They would probably be trying to keep straight time, and wondering why it's not working!
Paul: But why not? They shouldn't try to play like me. They should try to play like them.
If I was to play—if you were to take the drum track off of this, and put me in a studio to play with that now, I'd be playing different, I wouldn't be playing like that.
Chuck: How would you be different?
Paul: I don't know. But I wouldn't be like that. I don't' think so. I don't know! (laughs) I would react differently; I mean, I'm a different person now than I was then, so I'm going to react differently. Maybe I played a little roll there; maybe I wouldn't do it this time. Who knows?
Chuck: When people see you play for the first time, you strike many of them as being primitive, because you seem to use little technique and approach the music very intuitively. On the other hand, much of your playing is about as complex, sophisticated and intricate as drumming can get. That's something that surprised me the first time I saw you play live. I had spent years and years listening to your records, and I had one image in my mind…
Paul: (laughs)
Chuck: … of the most intricate drummer I've ever seen in my life, and I went to see you play and I saw something different. It's like there's this primitivism and this sophistication going on simultaneously. What do you think of that?
Paul: I think that's great, man! (laughs) Anybody who can do that, that's really great! (laughs)

I don't know. I don't consider myself a sophisticated drummer, I don't.

Chuck: Even when you listen to that?
Paul: Even when I listen to that.
Chuck: It sounds simple to you.
Paul: Yeah. It doesn't sound complex. Not to me. I'm just playing.

"Shades of Jazz" from album "Shades" (1975)

Chuck: This is a rare example of the Keith Jarrett Quartet playing a swing tune, but compared to how most people play swing, it's very "out."
Paul: That's happenin' because of how we're playing, we're playing it from what Dewey's playing. We start out swing time, and then the music starts to get apart from the swing time and goes in other directions, and then, as far as I'm concerned, just falls apart. And then so we just start playing free.
Chuck: Now when you say "just falls apart" do you mean that bad, or neutral?
Paul: I mean bad! It's like we're playing and we're trying to make music from what's happening. And what's happening for me is not really happening, so you just try to make music out of it.
Chuck: Really? That's shocking to me that you'd say that.
Paul: That's not planned. It's not intentional. You're playing from what your hearing and what's going on. Dewey's playing, we're playing 4/4 time, and then Dewey changes his phrasing where the time gets turned around. So then we're playing the time turned around. And then it's back on to the time. And then it's not happening, so then you break up the time. I mean, for me, it wasn't happening like we started out, and the time started to break up. So I started breaking up the time. It's like accidental, it's not planned.
Chuck: But to me it sounds musically positive, it sounds great.
Paul: Sure.
Chuck: But you said it's bad, it's falling apart.
Paul: Yeah.
Chuck: How? That seems so amazing to me.
Paul: Well, I don't know man.
Chuck: You would rather that didn't happen.
Paul: Yeah.
Chuck: Wow, this is hot stuff! This is like Mike Wallace and Sixty Minutes now!
Paul: (laughs)
Chuck: I thought you were one of the main culprits for loosening things up and sending them in that direction.
Paul: Well yeah, I'm the drummer.
Chuck: But you didn't have to go with Dewey Redman and get more and more abstract.
Paul: No, that's true.
Chuck: It sounds like you were musically inspired, like you were all going in the same direction and the momentum was just carrying everyone.
Paul: Sure. Because I'm playing from what I'm hearing, right? So I'm going to make the best out of it that I can. I'm not going to fall apart, I'm not going to play garbage. I'm going to try to make music out of what's happening. So that's what I'm doing.
Chuck: But when you play completely free, you don't feel like that's garbage… Like if your playing a tune like "Fiasco," it's pretty chaotic, and there's no pulse…
Paul: But that's planned. I'm doing that…
Chuck: That it's in the context of the tune makes it more appropriate to you…
Paul: Sure. What you played for me on that record, that's happening at the moment. So maybe I'm saying that what started out as an accident turned out to be something that became planned. From chaos came order! (laughs)

I think some of the stuff with Keith is chaotic.

Chuck: In a bad sense.
Paul: Yeah.
Chuck: But when you say it's chaotic in a bad sense, how would you differentiate that from the playing on "Fiasco."
Paul: Completely different. Because "Fiasco" is something that's already planned. It's my song and the song is written to be played that way. What you heard was improvisation, it wasn't written to be played that way, it wasn't planned to be played that way. It was totally improvised. So improvisational music becomes what it becomes. That music that you played for me became that, became free from starting out in 4/4. But this other stuff that I'm playing now, it's not by accident, it's not chaotic, it's not by chance. That's the way it is, it's written to be that way. That's the way I heard the song, that's what I hear before the song starts. What you played for me, what it ended up as is not what I heard before the song starts. What I heard was 4/4 time, and then it got spread out. So I played spread out.
Chuck: So you think there's more of an internal order to "Fiasco?"
Paul: Sure there is. There's an internal order, there's a form. There's no form to what you just played for me.
Chuck: Well, describe the structure underlying "Fiasco," because that would be good.
Paul: "Fiasco" is a thirty-two bar tune, man. There's a form that's created by the melody. And that's what we're playing, we're playing that melody. When I'm playing the drums, I'm hearing that melody, if I'm play a solo, I'm playing off of that melody. There's no melody in the record you just played for me. It's [imitates walking bass] "dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun." Can't stand it.
Chuck: Now when you say "playing off the melody," you mean as opposed to playing off chord changes. There aren't changes in "Fiasco."
Paul: No.
Chuck: So everybody's hearing the melody in their head, and sort of relating what they do to the melody.
Paul: Right.
Chuck: But it's out-of-time, there's no pulse.
Paul: Right.
Chuck: Shades is one of my very favorite tracks ever recorded by anyone. I think you guys are burning on that. I can't believe that's the way you feel about it.
Paul: It is good. I can listen to it now, and it sounds good to me.
Chuck: But you weren't liking that, while you were doing that?
Paul: [long pause] I don't think so. (laughs)

I was trying to create music from what was happening around me, and I was not in control of that. When we're playing "Fiasco," when we're playing my music, I'm in control. That's what the big difference is. The last tour I did with my trio with Frisell and Lovano, I felt so in control of it that I felt like I was the melody, the harmony and the rhythm all together. I felt like I was playing the saxophone and I was playing the guitar and I was playing the drums. I never felt that with Keith, with that band. I was the drummer with that band and I did the best I could. Maybe because it was Keith's band and not mine has something to do with it.

Chuck: Does the freer way of playing ever seem scattered, like the musicians aren't listening to each other anymore and you can't bring them all back in.
Paul: Yeah, something like that. It's like if your climbing a rope and all of a sudden the rope is slippery and you slip a little bit, it's a drag.
Chuck: What's throwing me off about this is that you're one of the only people currently that still plays free music…
Paul: That's very different than it was then. You're talking about twenty years later. I'm more in control of shit now. I know what I'm doing more now than I did then, it's not as chaotic, it's more controlled. At that time I was experimenting more and I was just trying things and just jumping into stuff and leaping into the fucking volcano without even thinking. But now I'm thinking more, I feel confident about what I'm doing, I feel as if what I'm doing is much more valid than what I was doing back then.
Chuck: It seems to me that the danger of free music is that the more restrictions you remove, the greater the likelihood that it's going to be out-of-focus or out-of-control. Since you didn't favor going in that direction when you were playing straight-ahead twenty years ago, I'm surprised that you would choose greater freedom for your own music now, and that now, paradoxically, you feel that you're more in control.
Paul: I'm twenty years older, I've had twenty years more experience in playing.

See, I feel more confident now. Chuck, this is twenty years later, man, twenty, twenty-five years later. I feel much more confident in my playing now than I did then. I feel like now I can do whatever I want to do and I'll make music out of it. I've got 100% confidence in my ability now. I didn't have that confidence then. I was still feeling like I was learning and I was trying to make music out of what was going on around me. It still happens now too, but I feel much better now, I'm much more confident, I've got all this shit behind me, it's all inside me now. I feel much stronger. I said to Steve Swallow the other day, "Hey man, this is strange." Because when I got to be fifty years old, I felt like that was the peak. I felt like "this is the peak now, and from here it's downhill." But I was wrong. I've hit sixty now, I'm into my sixties, and I'm still peaking. That shit's still happening for me. I find myself still playing new things, new ideas, I'm phrasing differently, and shit keep's getting better.

"Rotation" from "Mysteries" (1975)

Paul: Now this is totally different from what you're talking about from the other tune.
Chuck: When you go out of the head the bass and piano start out swinging, but here's the paradox, in contrast to "Shades": here it sounds like you're the main person who's deviating from the swing. It seems like they started swinging and you're starting to play out-of-time.
Paul: I am. That's true. That's what I heard. That's what I heard that I should play.
Chuck: Doesn't it sound like you're doing the same thing you criticized Dewey Redman for doing earlier?
Paul: No.
Chuck: How come?
Paul: Dewey's not playing! (laughter)
Chuck: Charlie Haden and Keith Jarrett were! They were starting to swing and you changed it into something else.
Paul: Different. Different.
Chuck: How's it different?
Paul: It's different because I was in control here.
Chuck: You like taking the lead. Is that what you're saying?
Paul: I did there, because that's what I felt, that's what I heard. When they started swinging, I didn't feel like swinging. So I didn't swing. So that's what I played. So then they came into the shit with me. The other thing is, with Dewey, it was the opposite of what I just said. Here they started swinging and I didn't feel like it so I didn't. In the other thing, I was swinging and maybe they didn't feel like it, so it went out, so then I went out. You know what I mean? It's all related, every musician that's playing is related to the other. So I'm going by what I hear, they're going by what they hear, and hopefully the shit comes together and makes some music.
Chuck: What's odd to me, though, is that when Dewey Redman took the music in a freer direction you didn't like it, but I think in both instances the music that resulted was great. Don't get me wrong, I'm trying to understand the consistency of what you're saying and make sense of it.
Paul: Well, I'm just talking about it from a personal standpoint. I didn't like that I was forced into going into a direction that I didn't want to go into. But this thing, I was going into the direction that I wanted to go into. And here, when Keith is playing and it's just trio, we're playing kind of free, and then when Dewey starts playing, he starts playing time, and so we start playing time. It's nice to change the shit up. And maybe at the end of that we break it up again. So it has kind of a form and it goes in different places. It doesn't just stay in one place all the time.

It's personal. I didn't like the way I played and the way I sounded on the other thing. I like what I played and I liked the way I sounded on this.

"War Orphans" from "Tribute" (1974)

Paul: I love this. It's an Ornette Coleman tune. We play it very different from the way he played it. Nice.
Chuck: Is there a pulse in there?
Paul: You could put a pulse to that. You could say that there is a time there, because you would take the time from the melody, right?
Chuck: Is the melody being played in time? Could he be tapping his foot while he's reading the melody?
Paul: No. But, if you listen to that tune, you could say "here's the time, check it out." [sings the melody in time, while counting a 4/4 pulse] You could probably do that. But I'm not doing that, I'm not thinking that. I'm playing with the melody. I'm listening to the melody, and playing it.
Chuck: Is there a metronome going on in your head?
Paul: No. But there's the time… You could find one, that's what I'm saying, you could put one anywhere. I could play… [listens carefully and sings ride beat] Does that make sense to you?
Chuck: Yes.

"One Time Out" from "One Time Out" (1987)

Chuck: Is there time in this?
Paul: [Snaps fingers in time]
Chuck: Now are you superimposing that on top, or is that already there somewhere?
Paul: It's not there. I'm doing it, now. I'm doing it from what I'm hearing Joe [Lovano, saxophonist] play.
Chuck: So Joe might be playing in time.
Paul: In his time, yeah. Might be.
Chuck: When you're playing out-of-time, you're not feeling a pulse?
Paul: No, I am feeling a pulse. But it's in a certain area. It's not a definite distinctive time. It's in an area of time. Otherwise I couldn't play what I'm playing.
Chuck: That sounds confusing to me.
Paul: Really. (laughs)
Chuck: Because when I think of a pulse, I think a pulse is either there, or it's not. I can't see how you can say there's a pulse but it's not distinctive. What does that mean? Then it would seem it's no longer a pulse.
Paul: Yeah, it's a pulse within a certain area. Medium tempo. It's not a ballad. It's not a very fast tempo. It's a medium pulse from the melody, from the solos.
Chuck: Does it have to do with the density of notes, the speed with which they're going by?
Paul: Probably… See, he's playing pretty bright now, so I could go into time at any point here. I could start playing ding ding-a-ding, ding-a-ding, ding-a-ding, because I just took it from what he was playing.
Chuck: Now, when Bill Frisell starts his guitar solo, you actually do start playing time. It's great, but it's just barely there.
Paul: Yeah, I see what you mean. The thing that's true about that is the same thing we were saying before about Keith's band, how Charlie and Keith and I were playing kind of open and free, and then when Dewey plays it goes into time. You've go two soloists, so instead of doing the same thing throughout both solos, you want to change it up a little bit. So I kind of heard a slow kind of rock beat there for a minute, so that's what I played. And that changed it up from what Joe was doing before. To give it some form, to make it interesting for me, and hopefully that makes it interesting for the listener.

I didn't realize that the record was as good as it was. It sounds good!