Spacebomb: Remembering Paul Motian

On November 22, the jazz world lost a prized possession in drummer Paul Motian. We asked Richmond jazz favorite Brian Jones and a few other musicians to describe what Motian means to them. Here’s what they said.

On Wednesday, December 7, Spacebomb is presenting Brian Jones Double Quartet at Balliceaux, 10pm, free, ages 21+. The band will be dedicating one set to the late great jazz drummer Paul Motian. Visit for more info.

On November 22, the jazz world lost a prized possession in drummer Paul Motian. Motian’s sensitive drumming and on-point intuition is made eternal through his recordings with musicians like pianists Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett and through the countless drummers he influenced.

Brian Jones is one of the many drummers who was touched by Motian, and on Wednesday, Jones and his Double Quartet will dedicate a set to the “American maverick.” Flanked by two drummers and two bassists and completed by four horns, the Brian Jones Double Quartet explores juxtaposed themes, sonic pendulums, and deep driving grooves.

We asked Brian and a few other musicians to describe what Motian means to them (and to share their favorite YouTube video of the master). Here’s what they said.

Brian Jones, drums

Paul Motian was arguably the most influential jazz drummer and composer post-WWII. He was an incredibly imaginative timekeeper, strong and sparse and interactive and always swinging–even when there was no time. He dealt with abstraction longer and better than any of the first generation free jazz drummers.

He was a rugged musical original and an American maverick.

The combination of the super artistic creative cat and this New York “don’t fuck with me” badass is something I’ve always enjoyed: the different realms at different ends of the spectrum. Often those people make for quite incredible artists, that’s for sure.

He blazed his own path and in doing so became a jazz icon. As a composer he was peerless. His tunes were poetic, flowing, dark and enigmatic, playful, and child-like. Plus, he played the most soulful brushes on ballads and could accompany the gnarliest freely improvised shit around. Paul Motian was my biggest influence.


Scott Clark, drums

Paul Motian’s playing is incredible. The way that he can straddle the world of free playing and playing time is amazing–such a unique style. The Electric Be Bop Band is a unique group with great sounds created by the instrumentation and the writing is perfect for it. His “time” playing is so fluid, and it sounds like he’s telling a story as he goes. One of my favorite bands.

When I first heard Paul Motian I remember thinking “What’s going on?” It’s the same way that I felt when I first heard Rashied Ali or Elvin Jones. That kind of feeling that makes you take off your headphones and just sit in silence for a bit trying to digest how he was approaching the drums and the music…and at the same time making _you_ want to go and sit behind the drums and try to understand what he was doing.

I also got the chance to see him live a few years ago at the Vanguard with Bill McHenry, and it was easily one of the most amazing nights of music that I’ve ever seen. The way he played that night is still an enigma to me.

Joe Westerlund, drums

Like most people, I imagine, I’m most familiar with Paul Motian’s recordings with the Bill Evans Trio (with Paul on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass). This trio was introduced to me by an older friend in the high school jazz program. The thing that hit me the most then, and still does today, are the compositional contours and textures that the trio created together. They each made very specific choices about the supportive roles they filled at each moment.

As a result, Paul invented many sparse figures that played around the traditional swing groove, as opposed to constantly sticking to the same old basic ride patterns over a busy left hand and a walking bass line. This was an absolute revelation to my 16-year-old kitchen-sink-mind and continues to inspire me into my thirties. To me, Paul Motian exemplified the power of making clear choices in music. _His_ playing has challenged me to consider which parts of _my own_ playing are absolutely necessary, and which parts are better left implied.

Pinson Chanselle, drums

My favorite moments are 5 minutes in and 22 minutes in.

Paul Motian changed the way I perceived time keeping. He can play in any way and one can always feel a pulse. His playing is always breathing. Howard Curtis once told me, “If I set up my drums at Bogart’s and play one note and leave and come back the next day and play one note–well that’s a rhythm.”

Cameron Ralston, bass

I never met the man, but was fortunate to see him perform at the Village Vanguard. I could put that experience right up there with seeing Ravi Shankar perform several years ago as one of the most life-changing and enlightening. He was truly an old master. He taught me how to breathe and he’s one of the few drummers in the world that could make you cry. My son’s drumming reminds me of Paul Motian. He’s not quite a year and a half old. No ego, no self-serving indulgence, no bias, no expectation, no contrivances of what’s cool, no craving for worship, admiration or approval.

Yet, even with his breadth of experience, both on and off the stage, Motian always seemed to inhabit this childlike space of openness and pure creative intuition. He is the only drummer I’ve ever seen hit a cymbal during a drum solo and listen to it in awe for what seemed like minutes, besides my son Benny of course. We could all learn a hell of a lot from Paul Motian.

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Dean Christesen

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