It was none other than Keith Jarrett who, around 1970, sold a piano to Paul Motian. Motian, already one of jazz’s key drummers, had a head swimming with melodies, many of them carrying echoes of his Armenian/Turkish heritage. Now he learned notation and began to formalise them.
ECM Records boss Manfred Eicher discovered Motian’s composing and offered him a chance to record in 1972. The resultant Conception Vessel set in train four decades of Motian being among jazz’s significant leaders and composers, while remaining the apotheosis of creative drumming. His first six ECM albums are assembled in this set.
Conception Vessel and Tribute included fellow Jarrett band member Charlie Haden, whose bass dovetailed perfectly with Motian’s expressive melodies. Guitarist Sam Brown contributes glinting lines to both albums, while Conception Vessel is also blessed with Leroy Jenkins’ gorgeous violin on one track. That album’s highlight, however, is Motian’s duet with Jarrett on the title track, where the drummer’s whole concept of tempo ebbing and flowing to suit the emotional trajectory is fully in place, even if the piano sound is oddly harsh.
Despite the diverse appeal of the Motian pieces on Tribute and Carlos Ward’s scything alto saxophone the stand-out is actually Haden’s masterpiece, Song For Che. Arguably the finest recorded version of this timeless, weeping tune, it is a feature for the composer and Brown’s classical guitar.
The next two discs, Dance and Le Voyage, come from the trio that Motian had with the vibrant saxophonist Charles Brackeen and firstly David Izenson and then JF Jenny-Clark on bass. Dance catches the band in that fascinating, turbulent phase of finding a collective approach, while Le Voyage is more assured and boasts some blazing tenor from Brackeen. Jenny-Clark’s exhilarating invention heralds Motian’s ability to draw out his collaborators’ finest work, as would occur in future years with such players as Masabumi Kikuchi, Chris Potter and Joe Lovano.
The latter, like guitarist Bill Frisell, first came into the drummer’s orbit as part of the Paul Motian Band, recording 1982’s Psalm. Despite a front line of two saxophones (Lovano and Billy Drewes) and the presence of bassist Ed Schuller, it is Frisell who sprinkles magic dust over Motian’s compositions, defining the sound-worlds and moods, and playing brilliant solos. He also combines with Motian in creating out-of-tempo dreamscapes that would remain a hallmark of their collaboration.
The connection with Frisell and Lovano was so strong that Motian formed a trio with them that would survive until his death in 2011, initially recording 1984’s It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago. Frisell was Motian’s perfect collaborator, sharing the great drummer’s love of space and of bringing child-like joy and naivety to bear. Motian elevated himself above playing an instrument and composing to the point where he was simply able to “be”, and be making music.