ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally, this hour, we remember jazz drummer Paul Motian, who died this morning. He was little known outside jazz circles, but his five-decade-long career helped change the role of drums in jazz. Paul Motian died from complications of multiple myeloma. He was 80 years old. NPR's Felix Contreras has this appreciation.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: All discussions about Paul Motian start with this album, "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" by the Bill Evans Trio.

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CONTRERAS: Recorded in 1961, it features Motian along with pianist Bill Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro in a series of performances that revolutionized the piano trio by making the rhythm section just as prominent as the piano. Motian told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2006...

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PAUL MOTIAN: Before that, it was always like the, you know, the pianist with bass and drum accompaniment. And that just happened that way. I think it was because of the three of us, the three individual players who played the way that we played. And when we played, that was the result, that's what happened.

CONTRERAS: Jazz drumming is all about keeping time. And what Paul Motian did with time, starting with Bill Evans, was proof that it was elastic, meaning the steady cha-cha-ching-cha-cha-ching of swing could be implied rather than played and still keep the music grooving. As his career advanced, so did his vision as he turned to composing.

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CONTRERAS: Keith Jarrett played on Motian's 1972 debut as a leader, and Motian played in Jarrett's trio for almost 10 years.

KEITH JARRETT: He was a good drummer because he understood composition. A lot of drummers are good drummers because they have some understanding of rhythm. Paul had an innate love of song.

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CONTRERAS: Along the way, Paul Motian played as a sideman and led his own groups, from The Electric Bebop Band, which reinterpreted jazz classics with horns and electric guitars, to a trio of a different kind with electric guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano.

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CONTRERAS: He eventually stopped touring. Over the last few years, rarely played anywhere else but the same room where he recorded with Bill Evans 50 years ago: the Village Vanguard. And while that group made his name and was among his proudest achievements, Paul Motian also said...

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MOTIAN: I'm proud of the fact that I'm able to still be around and be able to write music and get better at what I'm doing. And I feel like I'm still learning.

CONTRERAS: Learning what can happen with four simple beats and a great melody in the hands of an innovator. Paul Motian died this morning in New York. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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