Paul Bley

A strange egg in some respects, pianist Bley has quite the resume (Bird, Ornette, Giuffre, Rollins, Jaco) to go with his Outsider status. He has a standard foundation in his playing, swinging bop lines easily when needed, but he’s no stranger to the avant-garde and doesn’t need a steady rhythm to get across his songlike intimacies.

Critical discussion of Bley’s early work sometimes involves digs at his contemporary Bill Evans, who was more popular but (to some ears) not as inventive. The comparison is relevant in the sense that we can point to both Footloose and Evans’ 1961 Vanguard albums as being amongst the most significant and enjoyable piano trio recordings ever. But Bley doesn’t have Evans’ best traits, and vise versa, so why damn the apple if the orange is great? Seems to me that both men are valuable as individuals.

I’ve barely sampled Paul Bley’s vast recorded output below, but I’ve listed some key albums.

Aug 1962-Sept 1963 / Savoy

This milestone piano trio album finds freedom in a casual context. Backed by bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca, Bley transfers Ornette Coleman’s linear liberation to the keyboard, couched in strange voicings and down-home folksy comping. The tunes are mostly by Carla Bley, whose inimitable songbook would remain open to Paul for a long time. Bley scampers through catchy tracks like “When Will the Blues Leave” (by Ornette) and “Turns”, while the sing-song styles of “Syndrome” and “King Korn” take an avant garde position. At times the music gets cinematic, like the distant piano thunder of “Floater”, or the desolate yet beautiful theme of “Vashkar”. I first heard “Vashkar” in a raved-up version by Tony Williams’ Lifetime band, which is very different from this spookier original version, where unusual phrase lengths clear a path for Swallow’s sadly droning bass solo.

In most tracks, the freedom in Bley’s lines is obvious; so too is LaRoca’s adherence to swing, except in a ballad like “Cousins”. Swallow takes chances but doesn’t lose the forward pulse; hear his sturdy underpinning in “Floater”. Bley well knew the innovative value of this music in retrospect, and one can note the effect it had on Keith Jarrett, who happened to love this record. A lot of Jarrett’s early-70s style can be traced back to Bley’s loose Americana chords and post-Ornette phrasing. That’s not to downplay Jarrett’s originality, but he detected in Bley an ideal that differed from the pounding angst of other free jazz, and he ran with it in his own way.

I’m reviewing a late-90s reissue that looks like it’s out of print at the time of writing. Footloose came from a couple of different sessions that produced other tunes, so maybe more of this vintage material will be re-released someday. It ought to be.

Mar. 1971 / Free America Records

Matching Bley with Annette Peacock (keyboards and occasional vocals) and Han Bennink (percussives) in a free improv setting is a promising idea, but sometimes promises are broken, and this music is too indulgent for its own good. Bley spends a lot of time wrestling hideous sounds from a synthesizer; the instrument’s nasal tones are objectionable enough, and with the added ring modulation, it turns into ugly noise. Melodies appear briefly, soured by the synth tones, but musical content is otherwise absent. Miss Annette’s secondary keyboard work reinforces the lack of direction. Behind them, Bennink does his usual sputtering and puttering on bells and skins, and he’s the most interesting presence here, although he cannot whip any order into the proceedings. He even vocalizes with the synths, either in enchantment or disgust.

Other jazz pianists of the time (Hancock, Zawinul) had an instinct for the musical possibilities of the new synthesizers, while Bley, at least in this instance, does little more than explore the “neat-o” effects that belong in demo booths and basements. He molests the machine, and it sounds juvenile. This release is mostly a waste of good live sound and nifty packaging.

Open, to Love
Sept. 1972 / ECM

Here’s Bley on solo piano, de/re-constructing pieces by himself, Carla Bley, and Annette Peacock. Some passages are so scattered as to sound like serial music, and all tracks have a subjective ratio of structure to free association. The music dares the listener to determine how exactly Bley operates; he obviously avoids the steady-tempo theme followed by solo variations, and neither does he immerse himself in a groove-oriented flow. Bley sounds far away from what he’s playing, but the truth is that he’s in very close focus, so close that time becomes elastic and his piano examines separate details instead of the whole (as a song or arrangement). These details are sometimes discrete blocks and sometimes spill into each other, Bley’s brand of forward motion. I believe he is a romantic at heart behind the uncertain harmonies and enigmatic public persona, and this comes out in “Ida Lupino” or “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”. I think he knows exactly the emotional impact of the dreamlike chord progression in “Seven”, thus his understatement of it. So Bley is hyper-aware, but he moves in slow motion.

“Harlem” is the one piece with a constant vamp and any consistent blues flavor (albeit morose), and it’s also the shortest. Paul gets so taken by Carla’s oblique “Ida Lupino” that he wipes the keyboard theatrically; is he poking fun or really being passionate? The two Peacock songs (“Nothing Ever Was” and the title track) spur the most exploration, their themes soft beacons amidst the icy decor. The improv in “Started” includes an impressive long line of flourishes (1:36-1:53), and then a syncopated four-note cell (at 2:10) is recast in the remainder of the solo. “Seven” is one of the most effective Carla Bley pieces - bittersweet, like a remembrance of a departed loved one - and Bley gives it the right mix of warmth, pause, and finality.

Warmth, ice, distance, closeness - one has to watch the contradictions in describing Bley’s playing, but such is the ambiguity. This was a forbidding first listen for me, though over time the album’s title has seemed more and more appropriate.

In the Evenings Out There
Sept. 1991 / ECM

With Gary Peacock (bass), Tony Oxley (drums), and John Surman (bari sax and bass clarinet). Aside from a couple of solo tracks by Peacock, Bley is the only constant, with Oxley and Surman contributing to just a few of the dozen pieces. Four solo piano vignettes are evenly distributed throughout the program, including the romantic “Afterthoughts” and the ominous “Married Alive” (great title, that), both of which are fine examples of Bley’s style. There are miniature duets: Bley and Peacock get their “Fair Share”, Bley and Oxley go “Speculayting” for a minute, and Peacock and Oxley “Speak Easy” for not much longer. When the full quartet plays, the results are somewhat reserved, chilled by Surman’s long tones as Oxley chatters away on small metals and woods. (It would be interesting to see the setup he was using for this session.) With Oxley opting for textural percussion and Surman consigned to cameos, the album sits mostly on Peacock and Bley.

(A sister album was culled from these same sessions and released under John Surman’s name as Adventure Playground. Similar in feel to Evenings, and with more focus on Surman, it has a fun version of Bley’s “Figfoot”.)

Plays Carla Bley
Dec. 1991 / Steeplechase

Sort of a sequel/update to Footloose, where four tunes from that earlier album are revisited along with other notable Carla Bley classics like “Ida Lupino” and “Seven”. Paul still finds these tunes inspiring, and they’re his theme songs, in a way. He’s joined by bassist Marc Johnson (who worked with Bill Evans in his final stretch) and drummer Jeff Williams, both supple players with modern dialects. The rubbery groove they give “Ictus” could not have existed in the 1960s, and their accompaniment on every track is commendable.

“Vashkar” misses the patina of the Footloose version, yet it’s more satisfying overall. The bluesy waltz “Turns” has an attractive piano solo where the opening phrases take a gospel twist. “Around Again” and “Donkey” are both interplay vehicles, and the formerly noirish “Floater” becomes a bass feature. The dour romance of “Ida Lupino” lays heavy, as does the similar “Olhos de Gato” and sections of “And Now the Queen”. The tender development of “Seven” is masterful, not least for the dynamic awareness Bley displays in preparing for the final theme statement. These takes of “Seven” and “Ida Lupino” are as beautiful as trio music can be.

The recording has a nice full sound and good detail on the cymbals and piano. It’s a great place to get acquainted with Bley and some of his signature pieces.

Not Two, Not One
Jan. 1998 / ECM

Fully abstract trio investigations with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. The oxymoron that describes Bley here is casual restlessness, as he mixes brief establishing ideas with deconstructive stretches, always flying the coop before any cliches hatch. Detailed as the recorded piano sound might be, the listener is still at some remove from Bley’s inner gears, which wheel more in momentary inspiration than in expositional plateaus. (And forms, seemingly, are out the window.) A couple of solo piano pieces (“Now”, “Vocal Tracked”) bring us right up close to Bley’s aloofness, where he teases the listener with tiny beauties before darting away. “Noosphere” remains gentle for a while, but it too is a stepping stone to interaction with his mates. Say what you will about Bley, he never patronizes the listener.

These three players are all veterans of the intellectual trio stuff, and it shows, as they neither drag nor raise hell. Peacock is melodically direct (“Entelechy”) and rhythmically unshakable (hear him driving the oblong groove of “Not Zero”), and Motian’s stealthy diffidence takes advantage of the bassist’s extroversion. Singling out a favorite track, I would pick “Not Zero”, or Bley’s perennial “Fig Foot”, a bluesy non-blues.

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