Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Paul Bley’

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.

The long “Good-Bye”

Good-ByeAccording to Martha Tilton, a featured singer with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the late 1930s, Gordon Jenkins wrote “Good-Bye” — which became Goodman’s sign-off theme — after the death of his first wife in childbirth. No wonder Alec Wilder, in his magisterial survey American Popular Song, called it “as sad a song as I know”. It is also, Wilder noted, a thing of remarkable beauty. So beautiful, in fact, that I’ve taken to collecting versions of it, and there are many, since it is a song that appeals strongly to jazz musicians of a certain sensibility, not least for providing the illusion of being through-composed, rather than repeating its individual sections in the AABA manner of conventional standards.

Goodman recorded it for the Victor label in 1935; the label describes it as a Fox Trot, in this case a distinctly gentle and smoochy one (and here it is). Since there is no vocal refrain, nothing except its minor key alerts the listener to the heartbreak inherent in Jenkins’ composition. It’s just the thing for a nice slowish dance to finish a romantic evening at the Glen Island Casino or the Balboa Ballroom, the sort of places that incubated the Swing Era.

But I first heard it, as with many other great American popular songs, in a version recorded by Frank Sinatra, in this case on an LP called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, recorded in Hollywood in 1958. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, the album is the singer’s torch-song masterpiece, and “Good-Bye” is its most exalted moment. Riddle slows the song down almost to a standstill, applying his most sensitive orchestral touch, employing juxtapositions and combinations of cor anglais, cello, bassoon, various kinds of clarinet, tightly muted trumpets, French horns and muted strings as well as great sweeping ensemble flourishes to inspire his singer. Sinatra responds with a performance of concentrated sobriety that puts to perfect use the lessons in bel canto phrasing that he learnt from listening to the trombone playing of Tommy Dorsey and the violin of Jascha Heifetz. All those underwater lengths he swam in order to master his breath-control find their reward here. And, of course, we get the lyric, an essay in elegant despair, fully comprehended by the arranger: as Sinatra sings “So you take the high road, and I’ll take the low / It’s time that we parted, it’s much better so” for the second time, Riddle’s bassoons parp out a jaunty little even eighth-note pattern that underlines the sense of physical parting, the tone of the chosen instrument somehow leaving us in no doubt that the jauntiness is assumed and false. The melody carrying those particular lines, by the way, is as  finely shaped as any I can think of, especially in terms of the relationship of each individual note to its chord — the sort of thing that seldom bothers the little heads of today’s songwriters.

So much, as far as I’m concerned, for vocal versions of “Good-Bye” (I use the hyphen and the second capital letter because that’s how it appeared on the label of Goodman’s original recording, although it’s mostly now rendered as “Goodbye”). After Sinatra, whose version is a certainty for my desert-island selection, I have no interest in listening to those by Ella Fitzergerald or Diane Krall, the latter recorded a couple of years ago with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. What Sinatra and Riddle did was definitive. Which nevertheless leaves the way open for instrumental treatments.

It’s a song whose modulations clearly appeal to pianists. Among the most interesting versions known to me are those by McCoy Tyner (on Reaching Fourth, his 1962 trio album with Henry Grimes and Roy Haynes), Paul Bley (with Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum on If We May, 1994), Keith Jarrett (on his duo album with Haden, Jasmine, recorded in 2007), Bobo Stenson (from the 2005 album Goodbye, with Anders Jormin and Paul Motian), and Bill Carrothers (on the Dave King Trio’s I’ll Be Ringing You, recorded last year, which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago). Tyner’s is in some ways the most unusual — he brings to his reading what the English pianist Alex Hawkins, in an email to me the other day, described as “beautifully luminous post-Tatum harmony”. Bley starts off at an even slower pace than Riddle and Sinatra, then takes the risk of doubling the tempo and introducing familiar blues phrases into his variations, and brings it off. Jarrett is Jarrett, in an intimate conversation with an old friend. Stenson is the pick of the bunch, for my money: wonderfully eloquent, lucid and absolutely cliche-free, highly attentive to the song’s ambiance as well as its structure. Carrothers and his partners come up with the most intriguing group-improvisation approach.

The brilliant French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen loved the song so much that he recorded it at almost every opportunity. I have three of his versions: with a quintet on La Note Bleue (1987), in a duo with the pianist Alain Jean-Marie on Dream Time (1991) and on Double Action in another quintet with the guitarist Jimmy Gourlay (1999). They’re all good but the first has a special luminosity.

Another saxophonist who got something out of Jenkins’ tune was Cannonball Adderley, who recorded it in 1961 on an album called Know What I Mean? with Bill Evans, two years after they had been members of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue sextet. Not the most obvious of partners, they manage to find the common ground between the altoist’s ebullience and the pianist’s cerebrality. Actually, Evans is the more ebullient of the two here, laying strings of single-note lines at double and triple tempo over the imperturbable MJQ rhythm team of Percy Heath and Connie Kay. The closing chorus is especially lovely.

The interpretations that would have shocked Jenkins most profoundly are probably the two recorded by Jimmy Giuffre’s trio in 1961, the first on the LP Thesis and the second at a concert in Bremen, at a time when the clarinettist was making his own highly original investigation of free and free-ish improvisation in close partnership with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. The application of their evolving principles to a standard ballad makes for a stimulating experience on both occasions, with Swallow on particularly fine form on the double bass, making one regret for the umpteenth time his decision to abandon the acoustic instrument. Quite probably Giuffre, being a clarinet-player, had first heard the tune in Goodman’s version. He and Bley returned to it in 1975, on an album called Quiet Song, this time with the guitarist Bill Connors rounding out the trio and Bley making slightly strange noises on an electronic keyboard.

Following more directly in Goodman’s footsteps, there have also been further versions by larger ensembles. Chet Baker recorded it successfully in 1953 as part of a septet session arranged by Jack Montrose: the alto, tenor and baritone saxes of Herb Geller, Montrose himself and Bob Gordon provide an attractive chorale behind Baker, who enunciates the melody with evident respect before producing a pleasant and completely appropriate solo (the track is currently to be found on the CD titled Grey December). Maynard Ferguson, a trumpeter at the other end of the scale in terms of technique and taste, recorded Don Sebesky’s arrangement on his album Maynard ’61, at which time the Canadian-born bandleader was approaching the height of his fame. If it’s not particularly subtle, then it’s by no means grotesque, thanks not least to a gorgeous tenor solo from the always underrated Joe Farrell. Much better is the version recorded on an album called Live in Japan ’96 by Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, arranged by Willem Breuker and with a stirring solo by another often overlooked tenorist, Gerd Dudek.

To finish with, a recording suffused with as much sadness as Martha Tilton’s account of the song’s origin: the one made by the great Chicago tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, the son of the celebrated boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons, in March 1974. This was the final tune recorded on the last day of sessions held over three consecutive days for Prestige Records in New York, meaning it was the last piece of music the big-toned tenorist ever recorded (shortly afterwards his cancer was diagnosed and he died four months later, aged 49). Although he had no way of knowing it, this really was his goodbye, and he fills the track’s four and a half minutes with a brusque tenderness that brings another shade of emotion to a song which tends to draw the best out of those who approach it in the proper spirit.