Although he studied drums in the Navy School of Music in Washington, there has never been anything militaristic about 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.
From the late 1970s, Motian has mainly fronted his own groups, ranging from the excitement of his Electric Bebop Band (which pitted two guitarists against a saxophone player, backed by bass and drums) to more conventional jazz trios and quartets. His lomg-standing trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell is particularly noteworthy.