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New York-based pianist Russ Lossing worked with drummer Paul Motian for a dozen years, performing and recording with him, as well as helping him realize his compositions. Lossing recorded two albums of Motian’s music in tribute to the drummer, who died in 2011. Here, Lossing expands upon the liner notes to his 2019 release Motian Music.
I stepped off the elevator on the 12th floor of Paul Motian’s apartment building at 107th and Central Park West, and he was standing at his open door with pursed lips looking at me. “Hey, Russ, can you play this for me?”
I walked into his pad, by now so familiar to me, with the wall of LPs, CDs and cassettes, piles of manuscripts and the tiny figurines that he loved to collect all over the place. “Check it out,” he said, nodding toward the small brown grand piano sitting in the middle of the room. One single sheet of manuscript paper was propped on the music stand waiting for me. Paul was in one of his periodic writing modes and I was, once again, summoned to play through his new compositions.
I knew the routine: I play while he alternately hovers over me and walks around his apartment listening. “It’s slooowww,” he said. There was no title yet. Just a melody and no harmony. After I played the bare melody, Paul asked the inevitable question: “What chords would you put under it?” A complicated question, to be sure. There were so many possibilities and so many potential directions. But I knew from all the years playing and hanging with him that he generally preferred the direct approach. Don’t get fancy. Keep it pure; keep it simple.
I miss those trips uptown to his place.
Paul was attracted to contrast — both in music and the musicians he chose to play his music. He would purposely put together players with opposing styles to keep things interesting and off kilter. Paul enjoyed a certain amount of conflict in his bands because he felt it added an element of energy. He said to me on more than one occasion, “We don’t all have to love each other on the bandstand.” He also constructed his set lists with the same philosophy. He would often alternate between one of his wide-open compositions featuring freely improvised solos and an old song like “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” or “Blue Room” — played “in time.” You never knew what was coming next. That way, the music never became boring or predictable.
I first met Paul when I picked him (and his kit) up at his apartment and headed out to Brooklyn to record Dreamer, my third album as a leader and my first featuring him on drums.From the first moment we met in the lobby, we had an instant rapport, easy and light. It felt like we had known each other for years. Musically, that first time playing with him was a revelation. I would play through each composition for him briefly and then we would record it. Paul said that he didn’t read music anymore, but he absorbed my compositions instantly and seemed to have a psychic understanding of my phrasing, even though he had never heard me play before.
His feel on drums was so easy and his groove so wide that you just felt like you could play anything and it would work. I think everyone that ever played with Paul was changed forever. Even though he had a formidable technique, it was never about “what,” but “how” and “when.” We continued to play together for the next 12 years. We recorded As It Grows, my second album with Paul, as well as a few records and gigs as sidemen, and I played in Paul’s quintet for a week at the Village Vanguard.
At one point, Paul and I were talking about the whole point of playing and improvising music and he said, “My only job is to make everyone sound good.”
That bit of wisdom has stayed with me ever since. - Russ Lossing