American drummer-percussionist Paul Motian, who played with some of the most influential jazz pianists of the ’60s and ’70s including Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley as he advanced the language of his own instrument, died Tuesday morning in his home town of Manhattan, where he worked steadily right up until this past year. He was 80.
Cause of death was complications from myelodisplastic syndrome, a bone-marrow disorder.
Of Armenian heritage, Motian was initially renowned for his work with the legendary Evans trio, which included the bassist Scott LaFaro, that resulted in the classic recordings “Explorations,” “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and “Waltz for Debbie.” When LaFaro suffered an untimely death in a car accident at age 25, Motian continued recording with Evans and different bassists on such albums as “Moonbeams” and “Trio 64,” with Chuck Israels and Gary Peacock rounding out those ensembles.
Motian ended up recording 14 albums with Jarrett between 1967 and 1992 as part of the pianist’s trio and American quartet, rounded out by bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Dewey Redman, as well as seven albums with Bley.
True to his name, Motian’s drumming evolved into an increasingly free-form style, characterized by shifting time signatures and extensive use of cymbals, cow bells, chimes and such. Along with Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, Motian was responsible for bringing the drums to the forefront of American jazz, composing his own music and leading his own groups.
After Manfred Eicher launched ECM in 1969, Motian headlined several albums for the forward-thinking label, joining a roster of musicians with whom he had often collaborated, including Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Peacock, Carla Bley and Don Cherry. He also recorded for Soul Note Records, JMT Records and Winter & Winter Records.
Motian also played with Thelonious Monk, Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano.
As a bandleader, Motian recorded more than 30 albums, with his own trio often consisting of guitarist Frisell and reedman Joe Lovano. His groups recorded tributes to Monk and Evans and a series of live Broadway albums featuring his interpretations of standards.
Since Motian first started out playing guitar in his youth, many of his configurations featured the instrument prominently, including the Electric Bebop Band, which featured multiple electric guitars.