'Lost In A Dream': Low, Loose And Slow

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 2, 2011 11:37 am

Fresh Air begins its remembrance of drummer Paul Motian with an archived review of his trio album. (The original review is below.)

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. On today's show we remember drummer Paul Motian, who died last week at the age of 80 from complications of a blood and bone marrow disorder.

Ben Ratliff once wrote of Motian in the New York Times: History's shaken him out as one of the greatest drummers in all of jazz, a select group that would include, say, Max Roach and Roy Haynes. Will Friedwald once wrote in the New York Sun, quote: "Mr. Motian made history at The Vanguard in 1961 as the drummer with the Bill Evans Trio, whose live album at that already legendary Seventh Avenue basement defined a dynasty of piano players."

"Mr. Motian then helped two other outstanding pianists, Paul Blew and Keith Jarrett, put their trios on the map. Lots of drummers are about power and energy; Mr. Motian is about supporting a soloist," unquote.

Motian led a trio that also featured guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, who played together 30 years, first in a quintet. And he led the Paul Motian Band.

In a moment we'll hear Terry's 2006 interview with Paul Motian, but first here's our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead's review of two recordings by Motian that showcase his skills as a composer and bandleader. We aired Kevin's review last year, when the recordings were released.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Paul Motian's tune "Bird Song." Jazz drummers leading their own bands tend to favor intricate rhythms and a brisk and driving momentum. Paul Motian, with his slow tempos, loose timing and tunes that go with rainy days, is so self-effacing, he's almost an anti-drummer. A little rustle of brushes and the faint boom of a bass drum may be enough to nudge the music on.


WHITEHEAD: The odd thing is, Motian's trio album, "Lost in a Dream," is a sort of triple salute to him: from the Village Vanguard, where it was made; from ECM Records, where he helped shape the label's own penchant for slow, loose, melancholy jazz; and from his younger side folk, Chris Potter on tenor sax and pianist Jason Moran. They get how to play Motian's music - make the melody sing and keep the phrasing loose, but show up on time at crucial meeting points.


WHITEHEAD: Saxophonist Chris Potter catches the plaintive quality in the melodies like he's listened to Motian favorite Joe Lovano. Pianist Jason Moran underplays his hand, resisting the temptation to fill up space in the absence of a bass player. Interpreting Motian's melodies, he knows less can be more.

The album "Lost in a Dream" salutes the drummer as composer, too, reviving nice Motian tunes from previous albums to remind us he's never been much for slam-bam drum features. Even his rare solos take their time.


WHITEHEAD: Listening to the trio on "Lost in a Dream" sent me back to his weird previous album. The quintet on "Paul Motian on Broadway, Volume 5" plays mostly standards, if not all show tunes. In that two-saxophone band, the phrasing is so ragged it's eerie, almost like they're rehearsing for the first time. It shouldn't work, but it does - somehow. It's haunting like a ghost.


WHITEHEAD: Johnny Mercer's tune "Midnight Sun." Master percussionists often keep several beats or patterns going at once, but Paul Motian may trace a thin watercolor line of rhythm through the heart of a performance, as if he could only play his drums one at a time. It's all part of his quiet crusade against overplaying. There are flashier drummers around, for sure. But few do better at creating a mood.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR jazz critic Kevin Whitehead in a review aired last year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.