Motian died at a Manhattan hospital because of complications of a bone marrow disorder, said friend and bandmate Joe Lovano, a tenor saxophonist who began performing with him in 1981.
“He was a hard-swinging free jazz drummer with an uncanny sense of time-phrasing and form that was beyond description,” Lovano said.
Motian, who grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and spent time in the Navy, came to the forefront while a member of Evans’ trio in the late 1950s and early 1960s, playing on landmark recordings such as “Waltz for Debby” and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.” He also had longtime partnerships with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell.
Lovano called him a “true natural and one of the most expressive musicians in jazz.”
“His touch and sound, sense of dynamics were so personal and unmatched,” Lovano said.
Motian’s career also included stints as a bandleader, beginning with the album Conception Vessel in 1972, and as a composer of works Lovano characterized as “hauntingly beautiful.” As a leader, he recorded nearly three dozen albums for the ECM, WInter & Winter and JMT labels.
“As a composer he wrote pieces of music that were vehicles for improvisation,” Lovano said.
Even after Motian stopped touring, he continued to perform and record, mostly in New York and most often at the Village Vanguard jazz club, where he last performed in September, according to Lovano. His repertoire included originals, American songbook standards and traditional bebop.
Jarrett said Motian was a good drummer because he “understood composition.”
“A lot of drummers are good drummers because they have some understanding of rhythm,” Jarrett told The New York Times. “Paul had an innate love of song.”