1996 Paul Motian interview. Here Motian discusses his approach to the instrument.
NOT THINKING DRUMSET:
Chuck: What would you say is the central concept of how you approach the drums, that would distinguish you from everyone else?
Paul: Playing the drums like it's not really drums, it's just an instrument that's an extension of you. The playing that's coming out of me is coming from the music that I'm hearing, the people that I'm playing with, the music that I'm playing on the drums.
Chuck: I seem to remember you saying at a clinic that you gave at Pittsburgh that I went to, that every time you sit down you try to approach the drums as though you were playing them for the first time. Is my memory correct?
Paul: What you said is exactly right. Because sometimes I'm still playing stuff on the drumset that I've never played before, because I'm not thinking drumset, I'm not thinking of cymbals and drums. Hopefully, what's coming out is an extension of me and what's inside me. Sometimes I'm lucky my hands and arms and feet don't get tangled up within one another! Because I'm not thinking technique, and I'm not thinking right hand, left hand, or right foot, left foot (laughs), or tom-tom or snare or whatever. A lot of times my eyes are closed and I'm just playing. I know in my head where the instrument is, all the different parts of the instrument. And I just go ahead and play, and whatever ideas are in my head, hopefully they'll come out.
I remember a conversation I had with Red Garland, the piano player who played with Miles. He said if you hear the idea in your head, somehow you'll get it out on your instrument, whether you have the technique for it or not. And I always believed that, man. Maybe it will be a little sloppy at times. (laughs) But if you hear that shit, it will come out. And, as recently as this record date I just did last week, we were playing some fours and eights, and I played some stuff that I never heard before. There are certain patterns and certain ideas that I've been playing over the years that I may fall back on…
Chuck: It seems like you were one of the first guys, if not actually the first guy, who began to eliminate repetition in your timekeeping patterns.
Paul: Well, I don't know man, Tony Williams was too, don't you think?
Chuck: Well, you made those pivotal recordings with Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1961, and Tony Williams joined Miles Davis in 1963. I think you were definitely among the first guys. You were also one of the first guys to phrase across the bar lines. Was that from listening to, and trying to complement, Evans' phrases?
Paul: Could be, I don't know. I mean I never thought about playing across the bar lines. I'm hearing melodies, I'm hearing what Bill is playing and what Scott is playing, and also I'm hearing the song that we're playing, I'm following the structure.
Chuck: It sounds like you're not thinking about drums at all, is what you're saying. It sounds like when you're playing you think of a lot of different things besides the drums.
Paul: Yeah, right. I mean, I went through drum shit, I started playing when I was about twelve years old, I went through drum books and I played all that shit. So, not thinking drums, I'm thinking about what's happening with the song, I'm thinking about what the other players are playing and doing with the song. So I'm not thinking of bar lines. If it's going to cross bar lines then it's going to cross bar lines. That's not conscious, you know?
Chuck: Is that somehow the essence of how you got to be the way you are? How did you get to be so original?
Paul: I don't know. It's also like they say about being at the right place at the right time. I mean, I didn't call up John Coltrane and say, "Hey man, I want to play with you." I didn't even call up Bill Evans. Somebody called me.
Chuck: Another thing that strikes me about your playing is the way, when you're playing time, that you'll alternate different combinations of the components of your drum kit in order to change the texture of your sound. No other drummers I've ever heard use texture as an element of musical interest the way you do. For example, you'll be keeping time, and then all of a sudden for a few beats you might leave out the ride cymbal. And it will have the effect of, for example, a painting where suddenly the backdrop changes, while the foreground stays the same. It will have a very dramatic effect, and then you'll bring it back in and that creates another effect…
Paul: I'm sure you've heard the recording of Baby Dodds. That ten-inch record where he's playing and demonstrating different beats and stuff? Check it out man. He's playing a solo, and leaves out the bass drum, and then he brings it in. When he brings it in, that shit takes off like a motherfucker. Then he takes it out. That's important, that shit. That really influenced me.
Chuck: Something else that reminded me of you on that recording was that his march beat is very similar to your march beat.
Paul: Well, I listen to him, man, I still listen to him. He was great. I wish I knew about him back when he was around. He was still around in the fifties, man. But I wasn't aware of him that much.
Look at Art Blakey, sometimes he's playing along, and all of a sudden, maybe at the bridge or in the top of the tune he hits a cymbal WHAM!, really hard, and then he chokes it. That's beautiful, man. Art Blakey was a motherfucker, man, I appreciate him more now than I did back then. I heard him at Birdland when he had his first band with Horace Silver, and Lou Donaldson, Hark Mobley, Clifford Brown, and Kenny Dorham, man, that shit, he was smokin' boy! How old was Art Blakey then, thirty maybe. He plays so fuckin' great. That's some great music. I ain't heard no drummers today like that. Well, I can't say that, I'm not out there, I don't hear the cats, maybe there's some people out there.
MOTIAN'S ROCK BEATS:
Chuck: You have a very unique approach to playing rock-based rhythms, where you sometimes imply half-time and double-time by doubling or halving the placement of your backbeat, and occasionally you even displace those backbeats ahead or behind a beat. It completely opens up that kind of music, and I've never heard any other drummer approach those rhythms quite that way.
Paul: Again, it's just what I was saying before. It's just music, man. I'm not thinking about backbeat, rock, or whatever. I'm thinking music. There's a specific tempo that's stated in the very beginning, and that's already there. I don't have to force it on to everybody else and myself included. I don't have to enforce it. It's happening already. I don't have to do shit. I could have just stayed there and not played a fuckin' note. They're playing along, they're playing that speed, you know? And so, what I'm doing is trying to add some kind of music to that. I mean, whether the backbeat comes on the backbeat, or the frontbeat, or the sidebeat, or what-the-fuck-ever-beat! It don't matter, man, but it should be some kind of music there. It should satisfy me. Sometimes I wonder if it's a drag for the other musicians, what I'm doing, maybe I'm not as supportive of them as I should be. But fuck it, it's too bad then, you know what I mean? (laughs) They're out there.
But I could tell you a story. I was on the bus one time, and on the bus was a piano player, John Bunch, who I played with with Zoot Sims. And he said, "You know Paul, I'll never forget the time when you were playing with Zoot and just before the set started Zoot came up to you and said, 'Hey Paul now, I want you to play 4/4, man, I don't want you to play that fucked-up shit you play!'" Right? So, in instances like that I'll be thinking, "Well, could be some truth to this thing about me." Maybe I'm not being supportive of, in that case, Zoot. He didn't want to hear me breaking up the time and stuff like that. He wanted to hear straight-ahead time, right? Same thing with Lennie Tristano too. Lennie liked to have bass and drums play that 4/4 time and then he would play around it, and play over the bar lines. So in some instances I had to tie my hands down a little bit, you know what I mean?
But it's also difficult for me to play more myself under those conditions because of the music that they were playing, and what it required of myself and the rhythm section, you know? So there were some kind of rules in those days that I had to abide by.
Read part 1 of this series.
Read the entire interview at www.chuckbraman.com: part 1 | part 2