Paul Motian

Paul Motian
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Artist: Paul Motian
Genre: Jazz
Label: ECM

Paul Motian’s place in the jazz firmament was already assured when, in the early 1970s and at the relatively advanced age of 41, the drummer signed to ECM and recorded his first album as a leader. In the first half of his life, Motian had been a vital rhythmic foil to three of the greatest pianists of the 20th century (Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett) and many would have been happy to rest on such laurels. Indeed, many have.

Instead, with one of Jarrett's old pianos installed in his New York apartment, Motian began composing music and, with encouragement from ECM founder Manfred Eicher, leading his own bands. Over the next 40 years, those bands would become a proving ground for the next generation of jazz musicians, among them such leading voices of the current US scene as saxophonists Joe Lovano, Chris Potter and Joshua Redman, and guitarists Bill Frisell and Kurt Rosenwinkel. By the time of his death in 2011, this second phase of Motian's career had all but eclipsed his earlier triumphs.

Though inclined to taciturnity in person, the mature Motian played the drums serenely, like a Zen master, unlearning the technique he had acquired in the first part of his career and ultimately attaining a liberated, childlike simplicity. This made him, as Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson points out in his accompanying essay, perhaps the greatest free drummer in the history of the instrument.

This six-CD box set, part of ECM's covetable Old & New Masters series, chronicles the drummer's emergence as a leader, from 1972's Conception Vessel, with Jarrett making one of his few sideman appearances, to 1984's It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, which unveiled Motian's hugely influential, hugely beautiful trio with Frisell and Lovano.

To fully appreciate Motian's mastery, one will obliged – in as much as such a delight could be regarded as an obligation – to also acquire the box sets of his later work for the JMT and Winter & Winter labels. In the meantime, these six groundbreaking, heartbreaking albums are an excellent place to start.