Paul Motian has proven to be one of jazz music’s most long-lasting drummers, a performer who has never gone out of style quite simply because his style is his own and is never like anyone else’s. Though he is stylistically light where Elvin Jones was heavy, he is similarly a drummer who floats on the stream of the music and offers colorings and shadings accordingly, as another pitched instrument would. Over time, Motian has come to almost completely ignore any sort of timekeeping role, relying on the spaces in and around his playing and that of his cohorts to define the elements of beat and time. Like Jones, Motian has taken his very personal concept and language of the drum kit to an extreme. Yet because he, like Jones, also is an artist possessed of the greatest sensitivity to and appreciation of what the musicians he plays with are doing, the result is something so organic that one can scarcely imagine how the role of the drummer could have been conceived in any other way.
Since Motian developed much of his style and certainly his conception of what the jazz trio was and could do with pianist Bill Evans, it seems only natural that many of Motian’s greatest collaborations have been with pianists. Motian’s rarum collection opens with “One In Four” by the Paul Bley Quartet. Motian as done quite a bit of work with Paul Bley; this selection comes from the CD The Paul Bley Quartet. The piece demonstrates very clearly Motian’s approach, as his drum work becomes another part of the conversation, well integrated into the ensemble, yet able to stand out and make a statement when necessary. The rest of the quartet consists of guitarist Paul Frisell, another frequent Motian collaborator, and woodwind player John Surman on soprano sax. Motian’s other most famous piano collaborator is Keith Jarrett, and here we hear the title track from Motian’s album Conception Vessel, featuring the pianist with Motian on percussion. Recorded in 1972, it shows how current Motian’s direction was at a time when many jazz musicians were beginning to consider experiments with rock music and electronic instruments the last frontier.
From here the listener is taken back into the 1970s, to two pianoless trios that Motian worked with during the decade. These consist of Motian, saxophonist Charles Brackeen, and either Davis Izenzon or J.F. Jenny-Clark on bass. These performances find Motian’s style a bit less abstract than those on the disc that fall chronologically later. “Dance” finds Brackeen’s soprano sax keening above the swirling roils of sound presented by Motian and Izenzon. Motian’s solo here is powerful and dramatic. “Asia,” from the same album, is a delicate meditation, with Izenzon doing some muted bowing while Motian plays a variety of percussion in addition to drums. It’s a welcome opportunity to hear that Motian’s style varies little whether he’s at the drum kit or playing various percussion instruments—he’s always about adding the additional shadings that give the performance a great deal of additional depth.
The next two tracks come from Motian’s 1979 album Le Voyage. With Jenny-Clark on bass this time, “Folk Song For Rosie” does indeed evoke a folk melody. Like all of the work presented on rarum, it is a Paul Motian composition and highlights his very melodic side as well as reminding the listener that this highly interactive drummer is also an excellent composer. Jenny-Clark takes a really nice solo as well that is a bit reminiscent of Charlie Haden, with whom Motian has frequently collaborated. The final piece from this group, and this period, is “Abacus.” It opens with a Motian solo before Brackeen enters on tenor sax. Though much of the piece features Brackeen in an extended solo cadenza, Motian accompanies Jenny-Clark’s solo here with some of the most straightforward post-bop drumming heard on the collection. It demonstrates that Motian can play any style he chooses.
Two other musicians with whom Motian has frequently worked are saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. The three are heard as a trio on “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago from Motian’s 1984 album of the same name. Featuring Frisell’s trademark washes of guitar sound that can be as lonesome as a deserted interstate highway cutting through the middle of nowhere, Lovano demonstrates his ability to adapt to a musical environment in which he’s not often heard. Again on this piece, Motian does some timekeeping work that is almost traditional, but as always he puts his own spin on the accents and the beat. It’s always a triumph when several musicians with distinctive styles can play together and have the result sound like more than a collection of well-known musicians—such is the case here. The group had played before, with the addition of alto sax player Billy Drewes and bassist Ed Schuller, as the Paul Motian Band, recording the album Psalm at the end of 1981. “Fantasm” is a fairly free piece, with Motian providing the glue for extended solos by Schuller and Frisell. “Mandeville,” on the other hand, is a breezy calypso that allows Motian to apply his drumming technique on a style that is dependent for its very identity on the beat. Drewes and Lovano solo beautifully together, with Frisell weaving his slightly Hawaiian-sounding guitar in and around the lines played by the two saxophones. It’s a memorable track and a great ending for Motian’s rarum collection.
Those who find Motian’s work here interesting should also acquaint themselves with his post-ECM work. It isn’t difficult to find recordings featuring Motian’s work as a sideman—in 2004 he’s seemingly been everywhere, playing on a number of recordings by some of the leading jazzmen of the day.