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Paul Motian’s was a singular voice in the jazz world. Going back to his work with the Paul Bley Trio in the early 1960s or with the Keith Jarrett Quartet through the 1970s, Motian proved a drummer of extraordinary color and sensitivity, and a composer whose canon was as unique as his playing. Later albums, as leader and sideman, particularly for the ECM label, cemented his status as a stylist whose approach to the drum set went far beyond keeping time — although he did that, too, and impeccably.
Born in Rhode Island and raised in Philadelphia, Motian was nonetheless a quintessential New Yorker, as evidenced in Michael Patrick Kelly’s recent documentary Motian in Motion (Aquapio). Kelly and his camera greet the drummer at the beginning of the film as he exits his building, and join him for his morning run in Central Park. In fact, from 2004 till his death in 2011, Motian seldom left the city.
The documentary grew out of another film that Kelly had been working on in 1999, one that explored the jazz-rich community along 106th Street, a.k.a. Duke Ellington Boulevard. Kelly, who lived at 50 106th St., was awed to be sharing the neighborhood with the likes of Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Charlie Parker’s widow, Doris Parker. Drummer Barry Altschul urged the filmmaker to talk to Motian, a resident since 1969. After inviting Motian to do an on-camera interview, Kelly was astonished at the breadth of the drummer’s career, which stretched from Coleman Hawkins and Bill Evans to Charles Lloyd and Arlo Guthrie, the latter of whom he accompanied at Woodstock.
Unable to secure funding to finish the film, Kelly looked to Motian as a subject for his next documentary. A friendship developed. “I think we first bonded over his sense of humor,” Kelly says during a phone interview in December. “Paul laughed a lot, and we did silly things.” A memory that still makes him chuckle: During one of their frequent phone calls, Motian, who lived around the corner at 467 Central Park West, wondered whether they could see each other from their respective apartments. “So I went over and opened the window, and he opened his window, and we stuck our arms out and we were waving,” he says. “And it was like, ‘Hey, I see you, man!’ ”
Kelly presents a layered portrait of Motian through footage of the drummer on-stage and in candid conversation, as well as through the eyes of friends and collaborators such as Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, Gary Peacock, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, to name a few. The laughs are plentiful, the affection among musicians evident and the brilliance of Motian’s performances hinted at in privileged glimpses. Kelly also reveals the street fighter lurking beneath the amiable musician; in a backstage scene at the Vanguard, a young man confronts Motian and trio mates Lovano and Frisell following a mellow set that apparently succeeded a more intense one. “I thought you guys had balls,” he says. “We’ve been here for six fuckin’ nights, where the fuck were you?” Motian barks in reply. “Get the fuck outta here!”
When Motian died of cancer in December of 2011, Kelly was heartbroken. He literally shelved the footage he had shot. Then, in 2015, between projects, he rediscovered a computer drive in his studio labeled “Paul Motian,” and with encouragement from pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Steve Cardenas, picked up where he had left off. He reached out to Lovano and Frisell and also landed interviews with Chick Corea, ECM label chief Manfred Eicher and saxophonists Chris Potter and Greg Osby, among others, each adding to the portrait of the drummer.
One interview, with sculptor James Murdock, the husband of Motian’s niece and archivist, Cindy McGuirl, didn’t make it into the film, but seems apt in Kelly’s retelling. “He said, ‘Paul was always looking for this sound, and he never actually got it. But it was in his head and he was trying to emulate this sound, and he was going to keep on doing things until he got that.’”
“It was really sad that he died at 80,” Kelly adds, “but he left us with so much.” — Bob Weinberg