Soon the Korean War forced him to join the Navy which he left at the age of 24. He moved to New York the same year and began playing professionally. "There used to be a lot of sessions in New York", Paul told Downbeat "there were chances to play. At the 'Open Door' near where NYU is now, they had sessions during the week and on weekends Monk or Bird. One night Arthur Taylor didn't show up, and Bob Reisner, who was running the sessions said, 'Go, get your drums, you can play with Thelonious'. I ran home, got the drums, ran back, played with Thelonious and at the end of the night he gave me $10. I was the happiest guy in the world".
Around this time Motian met Bill Evans. They played together in Tony Scott's group. Soon Paul had extended work with Lennie Tristano. He also recorded with George Russell and had opportunities to play with masters as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. The now legendary Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro (1959/64) broke new ground in terms of how the group members shared musical functions - blurring the distinctions between soloist and accompainists; heightening the standards for group interplay in the process. It has proven to be one of the most pervasively influential groups in Modern Jazz history. Throughout the 50's and 60's, Paul frequently worked with group leaders like Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Lloyd, Pharoah Sanders, Mose Allison and folk-singer Arlo Guthrie (at Woodstock). In fact Paul sometimes regrets today that he turned down the opportunity to become the second drummer in Coltrane's group - the seat that was eventually taken by Rashied Ali.
The 60's found Motian along with other drum innovators like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Roy Haynes developing an approach to jazz drumming that captured the pulse of the music - providing meter without the explicit repetition of earlier styles. Motian mastered the nuances of color, texture and melody that take the function of the drums well beyond that of time and propulsion of the group into the more challenging realms of composition and utilizing space.
In the late sixties, Motian began playing with Keith Jarrett aside of Charlie Haden. After several years as a trio, Dewey Redman joined the group. This quartet has also endured as one of the major musical forces of its time. The quartet broke up in 1976, but in the ensuing years, Paul has continued to work with bassist Charlie Haden in a number of musical settings. Throughtout the 70's and 80's, Motian's status as group leader, composer and recording artist grew and matured. His first two records as a leader, Conception Vessel and Tribute (both on ECM) featured such friends and musical associates as Jarrett, Haden, Leroy Jankins, Sam Brown and Carlos Ward.
By 1980, Paul was eager to move on. "I wanted guitars", he said. Pat Metheny reccomended Bill Frisell. Ed Schuller (bass), Joe Lovano and Billy Drewes (saxophones) rounded the newly formed quintet up. With the expanded format Motian's music became more colorful and complex. Paul, occasionally still performing with this group, began concentrating on the distilled trio edition with Frisell and Lovano.
The trio's first recording It Should Have Been a Long Time Ago (ECM) was followed by Motian's debut on jMT: Monk in Motian. It features the trio with Geri Allen and Dewey Redman as its guests. The creative output of Motians trio with the leading guitar innovator of the 1980's and one of the most sought-after saxophonists of today's jazz scene lead to nine productions in the last six years on jMT.
Paul Motian On Broadway (Volumes I, II and III) is Motian's remarkable tribute to the early tradition of jazz, his Electric Bebop Band gives a vivid and electric interpretation of Bebop standards and "Bill Evans" reflects his first trio experience with the Bill Evans trio. On all these recordings the trio is joined by high-ranking and estabilished musicians like Charlie Haden and Lee Konitz as well as by young newcomers like Joshua Redman of the Electric Bebop Band.
The Paul Motian trio in its pure form appears on two productions: on the 1991 live album In Tokyo and on jMT's recent release Trioism.