A User's Guide to Paul Bley
In a 2006 interview for the website All About Jazz, pianist Paul Bley said of his role in an ensemble, "If everyone's functioning properly, there's no need for you to enter and to play because it already sounds good and you wouldn't want to spoil it." Later, describing an upcoming series of duet concerts with fellow pianist Frank Kimbrough, Bley spoke of seeing how Kimbrough "responds to attack. That keeps the blood flowing and the brain turning…What you want to do is shake them up so they don't even recognize their own playing." The statements neatly summarize the exquisite restraint, strategic aggression, and original thinking in service to the music that have made Bley one of the most prolific, influential, and stylistically adventurous pianists in jazz for over half a century.
Bley, the only pianist ever to play with both Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, began associating with legendary figures right from his debut as a leader, fronting a rhythm section of Charles Mingus and Art Blakey at the age of 21 on Introducing Paul Bley (1953). While Mingus and Blakey are relatively low-key, Bley's affinity for the blues is already evident on a rendition of Horace Silver's "Split Kick," and what would become his career-long penchant for innovative, unpredictable performance is christened by a rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" that is the most impressive bebop tune of the session.
Women led Bley astray — in a positive, provocative way — relatively early in his career. His leaps into more raucous, free-jazz modes and sonic experimentation often occurred during recordings of material by his first two wives. Barrage lives up to its name by bashing around a half-dozen Carla Bley (nee Borg) tunes, and was recorded during a period when both Bleys were enmeshed in the Jazz Composer's Guild. Paul Bley, who's pictured in beatnik shades on the cover of this mid-60s curio for the avant-garde ESP-disk label, spends much of his piano time refereeing the scrum between the horns (including Sun Ra stalwart Marshall Allen) and the rhythm section, often steadying the melodic and harmonic equilibrium being pummeled like a heavy bag by the wonderful and feisty drummer Milford Graves. Two years later, ESP-disk issued another set of Bley on Bley (seven of ten tracks are by Carla), with another appropriate moniker, Closer, reflecting Paul's sweeter, more intimate treatments as the lead instrument in a trio Steve Swallow and Barry Altschul. Compare the two songs that appear on both records: On Closer's "Batterie," Paul keeps the fidgety, Ornettish pace but smoothes the tone; on "And Now The Queen," what is acrid and Monkish on Barrage provides the template for Keith Jarrett's moaning glide path on Closer.
Some of Bley's collaborations with second wife Annette Peacock took another step outside convention, into then-rudimentary electronic synthesizers. Circles captures two of these early '70s releases, The Synthesizer Show and Scorpio, at a time when rock and the counterculture were ascendant. Bley's doodles and knob-twirls can sound anachronistic in an age when your kid's Fisher-Price toy keyboard probably has more sonic options, but, due in part to Peacock's arty compositional whimsy, these tunes grow on you as either background music or primary focus. It's a kick to hear Bley's acoustic piano traits — the dynamism and iconoclastic disruption of set rhythms — translated into some pre-Star Wars space burbling that seeks a minimalist third rail between Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The later Scorpio tracks are more traditional, with Dave Holland and Altschul as the rhythm section and bouts of acoustic and electric piano. (For a later, equally fascinating example of Bley's attraction to synthesizers sans sidemen, search for the out-of-print Synth Thesis, a solo opus on the now-defunct Postcards label.)
As compelling as Bley the bopper or free-jazzer can be, his best stuff comes in a small group dynamic with peers who share his signature virtues — distinctive style, large ego, big ears and a willingness to command the course of collective improvisation. A couple of gems too easily overlooked in that regard are Know Time, a 1993 recording with an old mate from his native Montreal, trumpeter Herbie Spanier (plus drummer Geordie McDonald), and Conversations With A Goose, a 1996 reprise of a trio featuring multi-reedman Jimmy Giuffre and bassist Gary Peacock that first recorded together in 1961. Both contain a level of synergy and serendipity that is spellbinding to hear — how do musical conversations achieve such depth and transitional speed while agreeing to trade, share, and ignore basic lead and support functions?
Small supergroups of like-minded luminaries are less surprising in their ability to create such telepathic poetry slams-cum-coffee klatches via musical interplay. Put Bley together with bassists like Gary Peacock, Steve Swallow or Charlie Haden, and you know you're in for exquisite sonic architecture on the fly; add in drummer Paul Motian (who more than anyone is probably Bley's musical doppelganger via his perpetually original, arid, angular, quiet vocabulary) and you buy the music and order the espresso. Thus, Memoirs is probably the quintessential Paul Bley small ensemble experience. Tunes by Monk and Ornette are filtered in with originals by each of the three principals, Bley, Haden and Motian, on this 1990 set that features effervescent cymbal accents by Motian, and tracks such as Haden's "Dark Victory" that are the apex of whispered wisdom.
If you like your creative musings even further concentrated, check out Notes(1987), a series of Bley-Motian duets that's akin to two chameleons cavorting in bag of pastel M&Ms, or Mindset (1992) in which Peacock and then Bley freshen themselves with solo songs and then come together for remarkably wide-ranging and egalitarian duets, a pattern repeated four times and then punctuated by a closing pair of duets on the 13th and 14th tracks.
Finally, Bley has amassed an enormous body of solo piano work — over a dozen records, with more doubtlessly on the way. Each is a piquant, cerebral wrestling match with past patterns and predictability, with notes and phrases abruptly elongated and truncated, blues, bop and free rhythms creased into new shapes and hybrids, the dynamics of volume and intensity waxed and waned, and space and silence utilized as effectively as any pianist alive today. The quality control is high enough that you almost can't go wrong choosing at random, but my particular favorites are Open, To Love (1972), where Bley first mastered the solo form; Tango Palace (1983), one of his most overtly sentimental outings; Blues For Red (1989) for its truth-in-packaging emphasis on the blues (or at least Bley's distinctive version of it); Hands On (1997) for the resonant acoustics of the Bosendorfer piano; Basics (2001), for the way Bley hones his unique attack on a shorter, more varied program; and Nothing To Declare (2004) for conversely exemplifying the Bley method when he stretches out and lingers on just a handful of tunes.