Drummer Paul Motian Still in Motion at 75

Jazz drummer Paul Motian turns 75 this year. His extensive career and his long relationship with the New York club the Village Vanguard are worth celebrating.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This year jazz drummer Paul Motian is celebrating his 75th birthday. He's been a constant on the New York jazz scene for more than half a century. And throughout that time one of the constants in his life has been the legendary New York club, the Village Vanguard. Early in his career he played there with Stan Getz. He made jazz history there with pianist Bill Evans. And for the past 20 years he's led his own groups there. Tom Vitale caught up with Paul Motian at the Vanguard and has this report.

TOM VITALE reporting:

Thursday night at the Vanguard before the first set, Paul Motian, his head shaved bald, a hint of a goatee on his chin, sits on the padded bench near the club's entrance reflecting on his career. He says for the most part he's been lucky, except for a period in the mid 1960s.

Mr. PAUL MOTIAN (Drummer): I remember going to 52nd Street to the musician's union and trying to borrow some money. And I remember I asked a musician that I knew or I'd seen around, I asked him for 25 cents. I didn't have that.

VITALE: Motian isn't the bitter old man he might sound. He just hates doing interviews. But he loves playing at the Vanguard. He says he plays here up to 12 weeks a year. At a little past nine, he and the seven other musicians in his band wind their way through the crowd to the triangular stage.

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VITALE: Paul Motian anchors the sound from the right side of the bandstand. Wearing dark shades, he's in constant motion behind his drum set. When he put the band together, he called if The Paul Motian Electric Bee Bop Band.

Mr. MOTIAN: I wanted to play bee bop, only bee bop, with electric instruments. I sort of was looking for young musicians that really didn't know the music and I wanted to see what would come out.

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VITALE: The group started out with two electric guitars, electric bass and drums. But Motian says he kept hearing new sounds in his mind's ear. And he kept adding instruments. Then he started writing his own music for the band.

Mr. STEVE CARDENAS (Guitarist): It's very different from anything I've ever been a part of, mostly just because Paul is there.

VITALE: Guitarist Steven Cardenas.

Mr. CARDENAS: His composing is so very original and he's always kind of exploring and wanting people to take chances or do other things. It's really exciting and always feels fresh. It never ever feels like we're doing the same thing.

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VITALE: Spontaneity is what Paul Motian is about and it comes from a lifetime of playing jazz. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where he started out playing big band music as a teenager. During the Korean War he played drums in a Navy band. When he got out he landed on the New York club circuit and ended up playing with just about everyone, from Thelonious Monk to Lee Konitz to John Coltrane. But he cemented his reputation 45 years ago on this very stage.

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VITALE: The Bill Evans Trio made a live recording here that became a landmark because the bass of Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian's drums were in the foreground playing an equal role with Evan's piano.

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VITALE: Lorraine Gordon was there that Sunday afternoon in 1961. The 83-year-old widow of the Village Vanguard's founder now owns the club.

Ms. LORRAINE GORDON (Owner, Village Vanguard): Everything I remember about that trio, it was like one person. You know, you couldn't separate one without the other. It was so integrated and so beautiful and I couldn't imagine it existing without Paul at that time.

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VITALE: A picture take of Motian, Evans and LaFaro relaxing between sets hangs on the wall of the club near the stage. That Vanguard date was the last time that trio performed together. Ten days later Scott LaFaro died in a car accident. Paul Motian says he learned how to stretch time playing with the virtuoso bassist.

Mr. MOTIAN: His playing was a little different. It took a minute to get used to it. I was playing with different bass players that played pretty much 4/4 time. But Scott was breaking it up more and stuff, and it took a minute to get used to it, but after it did, it settled in and was great. It gave me more freedom. There was more open spaces.

VITALE: Motian says he learned to compose from a later Vanguard bandmate, pianist Keith Jarrett.

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VITALE: The 10 years Motian spent with Jarrett served the drummer and composer well, says New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen.

Mr. NATE CHINEN (Jazz Critic): What Paul Motian's songs have is just a beautiful quality to them in a way that great folk songs do. Their logical without being cerebral, in way that's still somehow manages to bring you to a place that feels new.

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VITALE: Critic Nate Chinen says Motian brings the same gift he has as a composer to playing the drums.

Mr. CHINEN: You know, you think about time and tempo and you think you know metrics, it's mathematics. And Paul Motian is the opposite of that. Things are not metrically subdivided. It's more like the sun moving across the horizon or the lengthening of shadows or the movement of a breeze or something like that. You know, you can't really measure it.

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VITALE: Paul Motian has managed to cheat time both on and off the bandstand. A wiry compact man, Motian is remarkably fit for his 75 years. He says his only concession to advancing age has been to stop touring, though he's thinking about hitting the road again. For now though, he's perfectly happy playing at the Vanguard.

Mr. MOTIAN: I love playing in here. And if I don't play anyplace else, that's okay with me too.

VITALE: Motian says when he's on the Vanguard bandstand, he can hear what's good.

Mr. MOTIAN: I'm playing like what I hear. And what I hear coming out of the drums, which is coming out of me, that's inspiring to me. And that makes me play. Whatever comes out, I don't care what it is, if I like it, it's going to be good. I guarantee it.

VITALE: Paul Motian is playing at the Village Vanguard this weekend. And he'll be back at the club next month with another of his regular groups, a trio featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliott.

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