I was on assignment and met Paul Motian at Birdland on March 15, 2006, the eve of my birthday. Later, we discussed the proximity of our birthdays and the Pisces/Aries thing: Paul’s birthday was coming up March 25.
Paul Motian, I’d read, could be cantankerous and dismissive of interviewers—I had prepared for this the only way I knew how: by repeated listening to the nuances in his phrasing, abundant in recordings with, say, Bill Evans and Bobo Stenson. I kept hammering away on matters of his drumming vocabulary, his gentle touch, and his use of sparkling timbres until his icy demeanor melted like the atypically heavy snow that had fallen outside. Our interview was published in the German magazine Drums and Percussion.
Motian drew me to Birdland next night like a magnet, his second night of a short run with pianist Bobo Stenson. Imagine it, spending my birthday with my wife and Paul Motian. At Birdland. How cool is that? The interview excerpt below, and the photos, are for your eyes only. They have never seen print in Germany or elsewhere, although a similar shot (the view under the grand piano lid) made it to the pages of MD and D & C. In the absence of any info to draft a proper obit, I offer the following in good faith and tribute to Paul Motian.
As Jon Christensen had remarked to me many times previous, Paul could strike his ride cymbal but once and succeed in stating the time indelibly. He worked with pulses, not drum beats, and with spaces, which he was apt to fill with timbres no one else detected and certainly no one would have expected.
That night pre-gig at Birdland, Paul displayed a devious sort of pride when showing me his “stick bag”. He’d beaten the system by hustling a couple of Virgin Airline plastic carriers and pressing them into service as stick bags. Functional and inexpensive. And waterproof!
FF to a my post regarding the mantra “I play for the song”. At the last minute, just before publishing that article, I felt an overwhelming need to include a photo of Paul Motian; indeed, I placed it near the top of the piece. That was two nights ago. And just last night, hours ago, it came to me again in the dark, this overwhelming presence. Paul Motian…he offered me the opportunity to keep in touch and I didn’t do so. I should have because I will never see Paul Motian again. And the phone rang with the bad news this morning.
One of the last things Paul told me, witness my Mini Disk transcript:
“In my neighborhood, there was a kid my age who asked me over to his house. I could hear some drums being played and there were six or seven kids on the stoop checking it out. His brother was playing drums and I asked him to give me lessons. He said, ‘The first thing we do is play a roll’, and he showed me the way to hold the right stick and left stick; and then showed me 2 on each hand: mama dada mama dada. Then he played a record, Gene Krupa playing ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Eventually I got a real teacher, Emilio Rugasta, and we went through the rudiments and books.
But even today my reading is terrible. I don’t want to see the music. At this point in my life, what am I going to read music for? I’m using these man: the ears on each side of my head!”
Post Script in Dressing Room
PM: I’ve done fifteen interviews in the last month… and I’ve given you more time than any of them
TBW: Hours, yeah. Why did you go the distance with me?
PM: Because you’re an inquisitive pain in the ass!
Paul, bluntness aside, was a master of the unspoken word and I am grateful I got to spend two nights with him at Birdland, listening to him allude to army days, to Bill Evans, to the necessity of refreshing one’s musical perspectives, all the while approaching the drumset with respect, sensitivity, and dynamics, lest it become routine. And hearing the ways and rationales for him playing that old Paiste and Zildjian…. Tbw.