Thanks for visiting my blog.

I'm posting my photos, poems and other writings here, along with news about my readings and publications.

I also plan to make available the sound files of my radio show, Across the Borderline, which has aired for six years on WBCR-lp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Stay tuned,

Phil Johnson

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My friend and former college roomy, Jon Quitslund, told me that jazz drummer Paul Motian had died. Another piece of our era breaking off and slipping downstream . . .

Paul Motian is inescapably linked for me with the pianist Bill Evans. And it was Jon who introduced me to the music of Bill Evans. It was on a day when we were washing our clothes in the machines in the basement of the New Men's Dorm at Reed College. We had brought my portable record player down to listen to jazz albums while we processed the laundry. Jon had an album by clarinetist Tony Scott, and he told me to check out the pianist on the session, an up and coming player named Bill Evans who was attracting a lot of attention on the NY City scene. I listened and liked what I heard—fast single note runs a la Tristano.

After my sophomore year, I returned to San Diego, and that summer I bought a recently released Bill Evans trio album, Explorations. I loved everything about it, especially the interpretation of a Miles Davis tune, "Nardis" and the tune"Israel," which I had heard on Miles' Birth of the Cool album. I saw that the bass player was Scott LeFaro and the drummer Paul Motian. I hadn't heard of either of them, but I liked the fluid way the trio worked together and LeFaro and Evans wove in and out and sometimes became co-soloists. I thought Motian's style was interesting and a little idiosyncratic, not at all like the drummers I was listening to—Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones.

Then three years later I made my first trip to NY City. I went to the Village Vanguard on Seventh Avenue South with friends of mine to hear the Bill Evans trio. Motian was on drums, but LeFaro had died in an auto crash and been replaced by Chuck Israels. Hearing the trio live was an amazing experience. It was a weeknight with a relatively light crowd, and during a break between sets I was surprised to see Evans sitting by himself at a table. I went over and sat down across from him. I told him how much I loved his music and how much I was enjoying it that evening. He was quiet and very agreeable; he didn't say anything, he just looked kind of blissed out. (I didn't know about his heroin habit at that time.)

Fast forward to forty years later. My daughter Colomba and I arrived at the Vanguard early and got a front row seat to hear Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxist Joe Lovano. When Frisell took his place on the bandstand, we were right under his guitar. It was a beautiful musical evening. I was watching the social and musical interplay between the musicians. Lovano and Motian exchanged smiles when Frisell went off into one of his spacey solos. During a break I told Motian that I had seen him play with Evans at this club. He just nodded.

Then in February 2010, I took my partner Karen to the Blue Note in NY to hear Frisell leading a group with Ron Carter on bass and Motian. We stayed for two sets, getting great seats for the second set, up by the bandstand in front of Motian's drums. That night I really heard everything he was doing and realized what an incredible drummer he was. Karen and I were blown away by the sheer musicianship of the trio.

After the last set was over, we were walking through the club in a cluster with Frisell, and I realized I needed to go to the bathroom. As I went up the stairs, Motian was coming down. He was energized and moving quickly. I said to him, "You were great!"

Motian smiled and answered without skipping a beat, "I was, wasn't I."

That is the last image I have of Paul Motian.

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