A few weeks ago I read something that both surprised and greatly pleased me: an announcement of the imminent release of a new CD featuring the great Canadian pianist Paul Bley (1932-2016), in a live performance recorded in Lugano in 1999 featuring the illustrious trio of Bley, bassist Gary Peacock and the late, likewise great drummer Paul Motian. How could I resist such a release, given that Bley has a fair claim, alongside Ornette Coleman, to being my favourite jazzer of all time? (If my record and CD collection includes more titles by Bley than by anyone else, that’s probably a reflection not merely of my tastes but of the pleasure he took in playing; his output was so prolific that, even though I have dozens of his albums, there are many others I don’t possess.)
What made Bley so great? It wasn’t merely a matter of terrific musical technique; rather, it was the fact that he could and would play in such a variety of styles – from ballad standards, bluesy riffs and hard bebop to something altogether more abstract and modernist – and could even combine them, amazingly coherently, within a single piece. Moreover, whichever style he happened to be playing in at any given moment, he was always immediately recognisable as Paul Bley, as opposed to any other pianist. The sure sense of space between notes, the constant capacity for surprise, the impression, even within pieces that mostly felt free form, that the notes he chose to play were the only right ones – all of this made him one of the most distinctive players around. It helped that, in addition to playing standards, he would return again and again to certain tunes – most notably favoured numbers by Annette Peacock, Carla Bley, Ornette and himself – and to certain rhythmic templates or melodic fragments, reworking them from different angles, searching for new paths to explore. As Richard Cook wrote in 1994, ‘There is no other pianist currently active with a stylistic signature as distinctively inscribed as Paul Bley’s – which is ironic, for he is a restless experimenter with an inbuilt resistance to stopping long in any one place. It is difficult to formulate exactly what unifies his remarkable body of work, beyond a vague sense that Bley’s enunciation and accent are different from other people’s, almost as if he strikes the keyboard differently.’ Or Brian Case put it this way, writing in 1978: ‘Unlike most of the New Wave pianists, Bley’s style is spare and subtle, introverted and extremely concentrated. His chords are complex and many-layered. Inner voices are constantly shifting, altering the structure of his pieces… Radicalism doesn’t have to shout, and Bley’s originality repays careful listening.’
Those qualities are gloriously evident in the new ECM album, When Will The Blues Leave, named after a Coleman tune which Bley first played in 1958 when he famously gave the then still highly controversial saxophonist a place in his quintet at Los Angeles’ Hillcrest Club. (Bley later released the near-legendary live recording of that band on his own Improvising Artists Inc label as Coleman Classics 1.) When Will The Blues Leave is, of course, a trio album, and boasts extraordinary telepathic interplay between pianist, bassist and drummer even when they are exercising their freedom to go their own highly individual ways; the musicians played together – occasionally as a trio, often in other configurations – a great deal over the years, and it shows. (The trio recorded together as early as 1963, though the results remained unavailable until ECM released Paul Bley with Gary Peacock – the label’s third album – in 1970.) Characteristically, Motian’s playing is wondrously light, imaginative and subtle, at times almost melodic, while Peacock’s is vigorous, solidly grounded yet impressively fleet-footed in its deft responses to his colleagues.
The Lugano gig came a year after the trio had recorded Not Two, Not One for ECM, and Dialogue Amour reappears from that album, albeit in fairly different form. Most of the numbers featured have already appeared at least once on earlier albums – Peacock’s Moor, like the Coleman tune, was included on Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, while Flame and Longer appeared on the late Bley live solo album Play Blue. It should be said, however, that titles can be deceptive, and certainly irrelevant to any expectations aroused by earlier recordings; while the opening Mazatlan was for many years a Bley favourite (my own earliest version is on a 1966 recording released in the UK as Ramblin’), the opening statement is soon abandoned for a fruitfully digressive improvisation that detours though a range of Bley’s oft-visited riffs and fragments. That’s par for the course; very often a single piece will encompass a variety of tempi and moods, while managing somehow to tell a musical narrative that makes absolute sense, so closely in touch with one another are the three storytellers.
Perhaps the finest example of this, however, is one of the album’s two solos by Bley (the other being the closing, comparatively straightforward version of Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy, a lovely cover of which appeared on Bley’s 1977 solo album Axis). Entitled Told You So, it begins with Bley ruminating on a simple bluesy riff, before he makes his meandering but entirely logical way though a number of vaguely familiar motifs, until he finally and slyly alights, as if by magic, on one of his most memorable lyrical melodies – on the Axis album it was named Please Don’t Ever Leave Me, a title which nicely describes its beautifully understated romanticism. Bley’s playing – always right there in the moment, always open to spontaneous detour – is at the same time rich in historical resonance and musical allusion; Told You So is like a brief, imaginatively constructed postcard resumé of his past as a soloist and composer, while Dialogue Amour nods in passing to Ornithology (Bley’s love of Charlie Parker can be sampled on the 1990 Steeplechase album Bebop) and Longer sees him at one point half-quoting the opening phrase of Long Ago and Far Away, the Jerome Kern classic which he, Peacock and Motian had played on that first recorded collaboration in 1963.
On the ECM website you can only listen to the opening moments of each track of this wonderful album; the samples give no idea of how marvellously – highly inventively yet with a deep organic logic – the numbers develop. You will, I hope, find your own ways of listening to what Bley produced over the decades – with or without such illustrious partners as Motian and Peacock; at the bottom you’ll find an early track by him, playing Annette Peacock’s Touching, which provides a nice example of him in pensive vein. And, finally, to suggest the sheer range of Bley’s musical adventures, here is a dozen of my own favourite albums (not including the new release – it’s too soon to tell!) by this sadly still underrated master of the piano. (The dates given are for the recording sessions, not the release.)
1961 (1961, ECM; originally Fusion and Thesis by Jimmy Giuffre 3) with Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Swallow
Turning Point (1964, Improvising Artists Inc) with John Gilmore, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, Billy Elgart
Open, To Love (1972, ECM) solo
Axis (1977, Improvising Artists Inc) solo
Fragments (1986, ECM) with John Surman, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian
BeBop (1989, Steeplechase) with Bob Cranshaw, Keith Copeland
The Life of a Trio: Saturday and The Life of a Trio: Sunday (1989, Owl) with Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Swallow
Paul Plays Carla (1991, Steeplechase) with Marc Johnson, Jeff Williams
Memoirs (1999, Soul Note) with Charlie Haden, Paul Motian
Annette (1992, hat ART) with Franz Koglmann, Gary Peacock
Sankt Gerold (1996, ECM) with Evan Parker, Barre Phillips
Play Blue (2008, ECM) solo
When Will The Blues Leave was released by ECM on 31 May. The colour portrait of Bley is by Luca d’Agostino, courtesy ECM. (NB: the omission of a ‘?’ after the album’s title is not mine but someone else’s, as it has been written that way for decades – though not, as it happens, on the cover of Ornette’s album Something Else, where it first appeared.)