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Paul Bley: alone, again

Paul Bley

As a solo pianist, Paul Bley is a bit of a specialised taste. He doesn’t hypnotise like Keith Jarrett at his best or set the nerves jangling like Cecil Taylor, but his performances create a very distinctive universe in which substance triumphs over obvious displays of emotion or virtuosity. Astringent in tone and devoid of mannerisms, they make you listen closer and better. And here comes another one.

It was the appearance of a couple of records by the Canadian in the initial batches of releases from the ECM label at the beginning of the 1970s that persuaded me the new Munich-based independent label would be worth watching. Those albums, Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Ballads, were trio sessions recorded by Bley himself in New York a few years earlier and entrusted to Manfred Eicher, ECM’s founder. The first Bley album actually recorded under Eicher’s supervision, with Jan Erik Kongshaug at the controls in Oslo’s Arne Bendicksen studio, came out in 1973. Titled Open, To Love, it was an intriguing solo recital of tunes by Bley and two of his former wives, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock.

Bley has since made many albums for other labels, such as SteepleChase, Soul Note and his own IAI imprint, but ECM’s standards of recording and presentation fit him perfectly. In fact I’ve always felt that his personal aesthetic — refined and somewhat austere but not lacking in passion or swing — helped define that of Eicher’s project. His new album, Play Blue, finds him returning to Oslo, but this time to the Kulturkirken Jakob, a 19th century church turned into an arts centre, where this live recording was made in 2008.

He is 81 now and was 76 when the concert took place, but his playing retains all the fine judgement of line and time and the tensile strength that distinguished the work of his earlier years, along with an exquisite and wholly characteristic ability to skirt the fringes of dissonance. If you were to play this and Open, To Love to someone who had never heard him before, I would defy them to say which was by a man in his fourth decade, and which by one in his eighth.

The record consists of four of Bley’s own compositions and an encore of Sonny Rollins’s “Pent-up House”. “Far North” and “Way Down South Suite”, 17 and 16 minutes long respectively, merge into each other without a break and are intense, discursive pieces full of movement and surprise, kaleidoscopic in their effect on the listener. But I love the more concise “Flame” and “Longer”, which display his unsentimental way with the material of a ballad. I can’t think of another pianist so effective at creating drama by alternating legato and staccato phrases — sometimes within the same arc — while sustaining a strong underlying lyricism, and his wonderfully precise touch is beautifully captured by the recording (four decades after his first ECM session, Kongshaug is once again the engineer).

Bley neither ingratiates himself nor sets out to shock. He just plays, with a sinewy restlessness and an apparently inexhaustible fund of ideas, and he has spent his long career proving that a natural reserve and an innate warmth are not mutually exclusive. I’m pretty sure this will be one of my albums of the year.

* The photograph of Paul Bley is from the sleeve of Play Blue and was taken by Carol Goss.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Kieffer #

    Wonderful pianist. Wonderful post. Thanks Richard.

    April 2, 2014

    Thanks for the piece on Paul Bley – a great pianist, and the new ECM sounds like an essential purchase. A personal favourite is a session he recorded for Soul Note in the early 90s – ‘Memoirs’, with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian – but I know what you mean about how well he has been served by ECM’s sound engineers. ECM’s piano recordings have really been special over the years, haven’t they? Bley, Jarrett, Stenson, Gustavsen, Wasilewski, our own John Taylor – the list of tremendous ECM piano releases seems almost endless. And as well as the jazz and improvised music catalogue, ECM’s New Series is providing us with equally rewarding contemporary classical recordings. For instance, I would encourage a listen to Momo Kodama’s recent ‘La Vallees des Cloches’, in which she interprets pieces by Ravel, Takemitsu and Messiaen to stunning effect – worth playing alongside the new Bley.

    April 3, 2014
  3. I remember bugging Bley to do a solo album on ECM right after Facing You and Chick’s solo v. 1 came out. Paul’s (I think w. Gary Peacock was recorded around 1963 or so and Ballads was from ’67 maybe) ECM releases were both earlier group things and I was telling him how good the piano sounded on Jarrett and Corea’s LP’s and that he had to make a solo album for them… but I was still surprised when he did it! Happily surprised of course…

    April 4, 2014
  4. I was in Venice (Italy) last weekend and walking past the Teatro Fenice remembered an extraordinary concert I attended there as a student in the 1970s. It was a double bill of Paul Bley and Sun Ra both playing solo sets – followed by a few encores of duets.. I smuggled in some form of cheap cassette recorder and recorded Bley’s set (24/11/77) which I am listening to now. It starts with a slow blues. Wish I had the Sun Ra on tape, but I don’t think I have.

    April 4, 2014
  5. Jeff Gifford #

    Not being a musician, but being both overwhelmed into ecstatic utterances of the soul in search of words; and at times, startled into silence by the power of music, as a listener. I can say this when it comes to the music of Paul Bley. More is less in all of the best ways. Thanks for the illuminating write-up Richard.

    April 6, 2014

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