Paul Motian

People outside of jazz won’t know Paul Motian I guess. But for me he’s come to encapsulate important qualities, many of which I find in short supply elsewhere. Brevity, detail, humility, emotion.

I have problems with writing music, everything comes out stumpy and brief, like an insult, a compacted mass of material that refuses to expand until played by improvisers. And so it is with Motian, but he had no problem with it. His bands could always stretch the music they were given to symphonic proportions, to the point where you would wonder why anyone bothers with all that through composed stuff.

The detail, the choice of up or down, or stay on the same note….such great choices, and yet always feeling like one of many he could have made. In this way, Motian’s music opens more doors than it closes, leaves a little bit for other musicians to follow up.

The humility to leave it to the musicians. His tunes are like those writing exercises, “wrote a poem on this one word: afterwards”. That word is carefully picked. It is not “sock”. “Sock” is too specific, and music is no different. Tunes with hardly anything in them require one to allow so much to whizz past in the mind, catching only a small clutch of choice pitches, intervals, rhythms….something to get ones teeth into. And this requires humility, because people do not generally heap praise on economy of touch in the arts. Where’s your “large scale work” Paul? The fact that he lived ’til 80 playing his own music, most of which goes on one page of A4 manuscript, is a huge inspiration. These pieces don’t look like much, but there are so many ways in which they can make the musicians sound good.

And emotion, maybe it’s like a deep well in the mind. I imagine some people trawling a net through it in order to get everything out. Motian is perched on the edge of the bank, of his consciousness, dropping a long line into that black water, waiting. I think he threw a lot of what he caught back in.

I played with him once, in a workshop in front of students. He played the drums exactly as they were set up by the student who had played previously. We played “Blue Skies”, a simple old tune by Irving Berlin, who wrote “White Christmas”. He counted it off, we started, I thought fuck he’s loud. I tried not to play like Monk or Keith Jarrett or anyone else he had played with. He’s so much louder than he is on recordings, I thought. In real life he’s loud. He’s pushing us to play. “We had fun” he said afterwards. I nodded and smiled, the smile of a fixed grin newscaster. I have since learned to redefine “fun” in music. A small word, like a short tune, that contains multitudes.