Although he studied drums in the Navy School of Music in Washington, there has never been anything militaristic about Paul Motian's prolific work as a jazz drummer. In the mid-1950s, he played with a host of jazz stars including Stan Getz, George Russell and Thelonious Monk, but his major association was with pianist Bill Evans, both in Evans's trio and as a member of other groups, such as the quartet led by clarinettist Tony Scott.
With Bill Evans, he developed a way of playing that mirrored the pianist's phrasing and approach, often abandoning aspects of the drummer's traditional time-keeping role. He went on to prove that he is one of the finest trio drummers in jazz history, working with the free-jazz influenced group of Paul Bley and the more wide-ranging Keith Jarrett Trio. During the decade he played with Jarrett (1967-76), Motian developed a particular rapport with bassist Charlie Haden, in whose own groups he toured and recorded from time to time, from the 1960s to the 1990s.