Motian grew up in Providence, Rode Island. He studied guitar as a child, but switched to drums at age 11 when he asked a friend’s older brother to give him drum lessons. By the time he graduated high-school Paul was touring New England as a drummer in a swing band.
At age 23, Paul Motian joined the Navy, and was stationed in Brooklyn, during the Korean War. He was discharged from the Navy in September of 1954 and studied for one semester at Manhattan School of Music on the GI Bill. At this time he would go to Café Bohemia and other clubs on jam session nights, and play for free. At the beginning of his second semester, Motian was offered a gig playing with Teddy Kotick and George Wallington at a club called The Composer Room. Motian dropped out of the Manhattan School of Music, and began working full time as a drummer.
Starting in 1955, Paul began playing with a variety of musicians who would become jazz legends, including Oscar Pettiford, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz and Eddie Costa. His major association with pianist Bill Evans began when the two met at an audition for a George Russell record date. Both Paul and Bill got the gig, and they are heard together on Russell’s debut album “The Jazz Workshop.” Paul and Bill also recorded together on Tony Scott and Jimmy Knepper’s album “Free Blown Jazz” which featured Clark Terry and Milt Hinton. During this period Evans was also briefly a part of Miles Davis’s Quintet and played on the iconic “Kind of Blue” album considered by many to be one of the most important and influential albums in jazz.
In 1957, the first Bill Evans Trio; Evans, (piano), Scott Lafaro, (bass), and Motian, (drums) recorded their debut album, “New Jazz Conceptions.” That trio went on to record three more albums including the seminal work; “Sunday at the Village Vanguard,” (1961). Ten days after the Vanguard recording, 25-year old Scott Lafaro was killed in a automobile accident. Lafaro was replaced by Chuck Isreals, and that trio recorded five more albums. In 1964, Paul left the Bill Evans Trio and began working with Paul Bley, Arlo Guthrie, and the Charles Lloyd Quartet which included Keith Jarrett, that led to Jarrett forming a trio with Charlie Haden and Motian. The trio later added Dewey Redman on saxophone, and that quartet would record and tour for ten years. During this period, Motian also played and toured with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. In 1969, He played at Woodstock with Arlo Guthrie.
In 1973, Paul recorded his first album as a leader. “Conception Vessel,” was produced by Manfred Eicher for ECM records. Paul had worked with Eicher on earlier Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley recordings. Manfred Eicher and Paul will go on to record eight Paul Motian-led ensembles and dozens of recordings with Motian drumming with other ECM artists. Paul also recorded more than a dozen albums each on the JMT and Winter in Winter labels. He also recorded on Soul Note, and other labels.
Paul left the Jarrett quartet in 1977, but over the years Jarrett and Motian would occasionally record and play together. From the late 1970s onward, Motian led his own groups, (his long-standing trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell is particularly noteworthy). Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band (which pitted two guitarists against two saxophone players, backed by bass and drums), was a launching pad for many up-and-coming musicians including: Joshua Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Potter, Ben Monder, Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby. The Electric Be Bop Band was eventually renamed The Paul Motian Band and fluctuated between a septet and a nonet, at times comprising three guitars and a viola.
Even with the tremendous amount of recording and touring he did with his own projects, Paul still made himself available to other composers, continuing to record with musicians, including: Lee Konitz, Enrico Pieranunzi, Marilyn Crispell, Bobo Stenson, Gary Peacock, Brad Mehldau, Anat Fort, Geri Allen, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Enrico Rava, Stefano Bollani, Paul Bley, Ron Carter and many others.
Paul Motian’s Trio 2000 with Masabumi Kickuchi, (piano), and Larry Grenadier (bass), morphed into Paul Motian’s Trio 2000 +1 and occasionally Paul Motian’s Trio 2000 +2 which featured a rotation of saxophonists that included Greg Osby, Chris Potter, Mark Turner and Tony Malaby among others.
Paul Motian long known for his collaborations with pianists such as Bill Evans, Geri Allen, Lennie Tristano, Mose Allison, Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau and many others. Funnily enough, besides his later collaborations with Masabumi Kickuchi, Motian rarely included piano in his solo work as arranger and composer. Instead, he strove to highlight jazz guitar and saxophone, first working with Pat Metheny, and later Bill Frisell, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Steve Cardenas Jacob Bro, Ben Monder, and saxophonists Joe Lovano, Jim Pepper, Chis Cheek, Dewey and Joshua Redman, and many many more.
Paul Motian played all the major venues in New York City and around the world. He first played the Village Vanguard in 1957 with Lee Konitz and many times after with Bill Evans. At that time there were always two bands on the bill and often comedians. The Bill Evans Trio once played on the same bill as Lenny Bruce, and often with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and other legends of jazz. Motian started to play the Vanguard again regularly in the early 1980s first with a quintet that included Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Lee Konitz, and his other Quintet, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson and Billy Drewes. That quintet was trimmed to create the Motian, Lovano, Frisell trio and For 20 years, that trio played the Vanguard for two weeks covering the Labor Day Weekend. In 2003 Motian stopped touring and refused to tour under any circumstances and would only record, and play in studios, and venues in NYC.
In June of 2003, Paul Motian played The Village Vanguard for six nights with six different configurations:
1st night: TETHERED MOON, Masabumi Kickuchi, (piano) Gary Peacock, (bass) Motian, (drums).
2nd night: THE MARILYN CRISPELL TRIO, Crispell, (piano), Mark Helias, (bass), Motian, (drums).
3rd night: BILL MCHENRY GROUP, McHenry, (sax), Ethan Iverson, (piano), Duane Eubanks, (trumpet), Reid Anderson, (bass), Ben Monder, (guitar)
4th night: PAUL MOTIAN’S ELECTRIC BE BOP BAND, Steve Cardenas, (guitar), Ben Monder, (guitar), Jerome Harris, (electric acoustic bass),Tony Malaby (sax), Chris Cheek, (sax),) Motian, (drums).
5th night: TRIO 2000 +1, Kickuchi, (piano), Drew Gress, (bass), Tony Malaby (sax), Motian, (drums).
6th night: Charlie Haden, (bass), Bill McHenry, (sax), Motian, (drums).
He continued to play the Vanguard with many different groups, and other venues, including: Birdland, The Jazz Standard, Iridium and the Blue Note. He played right up until a few months before his untimely death, at which time he had gigs booked two years in advance.
His final album as a leader was “The Windmills of Your Mind,” featuring Petra Haden, Thomas Morgan and Bill Frisell. Paul Motian died on November 22nd 2011 of complications from myleodysplastic syndrome. Coincidentally saxophonist Bill McHenry released his last recording with Paul, “Ghosts of the Sun” on the day Motian passed on. Paul Motian’s music continues to be released, rereleased and recorded by other artists such as Ravi Coltrane, Thomas Morgan, Bill Frisell, Frank Kimbrough and Russ Lossing.
Our film will not only illuminate the genius that was Paul Motian, but will give the viewer an unprecedented look inside Paul’s creative world, as we travel with him to and from gigs, recording sessions, and visit backstage as this true American jazz genius plays and chills with other world-class musicians.
Paul’s niece Cynthia McGuirl maintains Paul’s archive of music compositions, recordings and other jazz history. Her site honoring her uncle is:
There is a weekly podcast from the site: