The Gap: Paul Bley

Photo (partial) from Piano

Paul Bley seems to be that rare jazz musician who has made a romance with the avant-garde seem easy on the ears.

In the Beginning

I started collecting jazz recordings in 1974, the year that I first bought Dave Brubeck's Greatest Hits, Southern Comfort by The Crusaders, and Study in Brown, a 1955 recording by the great quintet led by Clifford Brown and Max Roach. I had no idea what I was doing -- I just listened to the radio (WRVR in New York, on my cheap Jersey-based clock radio) and wrote down the names associated with the music I liked. When I accumulated five or ten bucks in free cash, I'd beg my mom to drive me to Sam Goody's. Thus do large enterprises begin.

By 1978 when I left for college, I'd accumulated a few hundred LPs. There was classic stuff (any number of Blue Note reissues of great '60s records), forgettable fusion (a thin disc by a long-forgotten band called "Dry Jack", believe it or not), vocals (I was an Eddie Jefferson fan), and the beginning of a cache of beautiful ECM records by John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette. I had collected every available Miles Davis album through Bitches Brew, and I thought I knew a thing or two about piano styles, owning tons of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Cedar Walton, and Thelonious Monk.

But I had barely scratched the surface of what a good jazz collection should house.


In college, I haunted a small-town record shop in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Hal March, the owner of Toonerville Trolley Records, saw me coming from a mile away and schooled me up on the likes of Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago on one hand, and Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet on the other. My collection -- and my head -- grew about five sizes in both directions during those years. By 1982, I owned about 800 albums. Was there any jazz I had not collected?

You bet. I had few big band records. Basie, Ellington, Goodman -- done. But what about the modern bands -- Gillespie's, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis -- or the territory bands? I had only a smattering of stride piano, only dribbles of organ bands, and merely the essential vocalists.

Compact Discs and Beyond

Then, when CDs arrived, the record companies began reissuing all the jazz that had ever been recorded. I stocked up on second-tier tenor saxophonists (Booker Ervin), marginal modernists (trombonist Grachan Moncur III), and female soprano saxophone specialists (OK, there's only one: Jane Ira Bloom). I doubled the size of my collection (to 1,500 or so recordings) before my first child was born.

Today, the scope of my collection is literally beyond my own recollection and understanding. MP3s clog an external hard drive and three iPods, and record company promotional discs are stacked on my desk a dozen high in six different piles. I flip through the 1,700-page Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD with barely any sense of purchase-lust.

At last, I think, my collection is a seamless monolith of completion.

Wrong. I may have all the genres covered, all the movements or general trends, but hugely important individual musicians have slipped through the cracks. The occasional stone-classic has never been heard by my middle-aged ears. This series of columns will catalog -- and hopefully correct -- my shameful omissions.

This time out: Paul Bley.

Gap: A Great Pianist

Until last month, I did not own a single recording by Bley -- not even as a sideman. For shame.

I knew about him, sure. Bley was a key piano player from about 1958 onward, hiring Coleman for a Key West coast gig and actually fronting on the first of the records featuring the alto maverick's early quartet. I don't own that record, though. I knew he'd played on the chamber jazz recordings of Jimmy Giuffre with Steve Swallow, but I was a never a huge clarinet guy. And I knew he'd experimented in many different directions: with electronics, with free playing, with solo piano concerts, and with new approaches to the classic jazz trio.

I knew all this, but I knew nothing. I hadn't done the listening.

Solo in Mondsee, A Jumping Off Point. So, for the last month I've been doing some catching up. I started, as may be typical, with Bley's most recent recording, an essay of ten solo piano meditations recorded for Manfred Eicher's great ECM label. And what I heard riveted my attention. Bley novices like me will surely hear in Bley's playing a variant on the familiar rhapsodies of Keith Jarrett. On this most recent recording, there is a looseness of approach and expansive sound that evokes Jarrett but is also distinct. Jarrett is, mostly, an emotive maximalist -- a pianist who digs in for the big gesture even when he is working with a limited harmonic palette or is playing softly.

Bley, on the other hand, works expansively in a realm of economy. While the ECM recording sounds spacious and large, Bley's pianistic attack and note choice has a narrow focus. On the fifth of these sound essays, for example, Bley builds a simple, slow trill of two notes into a lyrical ballad. "Mondsee Variations V" starts like a delicate chidren's dance, but it contains swift passages of severity in which Bley resists the sweetest or bluesiest choice for something more elegant, if a touch harsh.

"Variations II" seems like it could almost be a pop song at first, then it plays itself into a dissonant bridge section. While Bley never rejects the pleasure of his melodic hook, he is also not a slave to its bounciness. There is a formality to the approach -- Bley the composer gives himself only so much "easy" beauty to work with. The rest requires discipline.

The most interesting element of Mondsee is its oblique approach to dissonance. Bley is not afraid of a knotty chord or cluster, but his playing -- filled with generous slices of silence and leg-room -- is not forbidding. Like Miles Davis when he played "out", Bley can't help but make attractive sounds. It's as if his mind's architecture can't help but come through at every turn. "Variations IX" starts with alternating sections of sonic jumble and bouncing melodic refrain, all of it sounding gorgeously connected through careful pedaling and sonic design. Bley seems to be that rare jazz musician who has made a romance with the avant-garde seem easy on the ears.

What else has this guy done? Well, it turns out he is one of the most exhaustively recorded jazz musicians ever, even though I had somehow managed to avoid him.

"Astonishingly Prolific"

That is how Cook and Morton of the Penguin Guide describe Bley, saying that he has recorded over 100 albums during his career. I quickly discovered that this was true. On iTunes alone, Bley has dozens of recordings available, spanning six decades. There was to be no shortage of gap-filling choices, but there was going to be a lengthy and entertaining debate over the best way to get a proper dose of this important musician. I knew I wanted to hear more of his atonal playing and also some of his important early work. But was it essential that I sample his experiments with synthesizers? Should I listen to his approach to "standard" tunes and to the classic piano-bass-drums format?

I decided to buy a fairly recent album of duets between Bley and the British trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, a favorite player of mine who is also under-represented in the Layman Collection. Touché, on Justin Time Records, catches the two musicians playing free and loose at every turn. Again, however, it was impossible not to hear generous lyricism in the free playing. This is a superbly engineered record, and it brings out one of Bley's essential characteristics as a musician: his patience with silence and his careful attention to the overtone subtleties of his instrument.

"Déjà vu", for example, begins with two quick piano notes, struck with the damper pedal down, which then mix together sonically the way to liquids slowly twirl and snake about each other over time. Wheeler's muted trumpet buzzes into this rich mix of reverberations and dances with them some more. "Fausto" is even subtler, as Wheeler seems to be playing, open horned, into the belly of Bley's piano. The brass tones ring the strings of the piano so that Bley -- without even touching the keys, it seems -- is dueting with his partner nonetheless.

There is a great mixture here of songs that have a nearly 12-tone austerity to them ("Ouvre") and tunes that jump into your ears with melody and pleasure ("Doing Time"). As often as Bley plays a bouncing chordal accompaniment to Wheeler's singing trumpet voice, he reaches inside the piano to damp strings with his fingers or to pluck the strings directly to creative effect.

Bley sometimes sings along to his playing, quietly, like Keith Jarrett. At other times, the piano seems to resist lyricism. On his solo track, "Upscale", all of this seems to be happening at once. You strive for the right kind of metaphor for this playing: Bley is like a mathematician falling in love; Bley is like a simple black cocktail dress, but frayed at the hem just where there is a little blood stain. Something like that.

Paul Bley in Solo Piano Concert 1999; Tokyo

Origins and Experimentation

While Bley is famous for hiring Coleman in 1958, the pianist came to clearer prominence in 1961 and 1962 for playing in a one-of-a-kind trio led by clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and also containing the bassist Steve Swallow. The last of their three albums from that time, Free Fall on Columbia Records, is the culmination of the trio's experimentation in form and in sound itself. If I wanted to understand Bley's origins as a formalist with a free streak, this was just the recording to fill a gap in my collection.

Free Fall is, in fact, an essential document. Recorded in the same era as the "shocking!" free jazz of Ornette Coleman, it is in many ways much more outside the jazz tradition. Coleman may have played fast and loose with the notion of chord changes, but his group sounded like jazz: a trumpet/saxophone front line, a mostly walking bass, a pulsating drummer. The Giuffre Trio on this final recording of the '60s (they would reunite decades later) is working well outside the jazz tradition -- no drums, very little swing time (no sustained walking bass), very little melody-solos-melody format, and little reliance on blues scales or even blues tonality. It's no surprise that ECM would later make the trio's first two albums its first reissues, as this music has a distinctly "European" flavor, sounding in many ways more like avant-garde classical music than jazz. Yet it also echoes Benny Goodman's trios to some extent, and it presages a great swath of music from more recent years that we certainly consider to be in the great jazz tradition of American improvised music.

Giuffre himself is engaged in all manner of microtonal play -- playing overtones on his reed to get more than one note at the same time and carefully fooling with his embouchure to play precise quarter tones sharp or flat in specific places. And Bley is right on his tail, achieving strange and wonderful harmonic effects by playing clusters of tones rather than sonorous chords and by avoiding "obvious" diatonic or pentatonic lines, instead playing lines that juxtapose very high and very low notes or lines that follow jagged patterns with unexpected intervallic leaps.

"Five Ways" from Free Fall is a ten-minute extended performance that captures Bley in extraordinary form. While much of the date toggles between solo clarinet and various short duets and trios, this track is a longer piece for the whole group, with portions of it carefully composed and other portions seeming to be freely improvised. It falls to Bley to corral the group during the free sections.

As the only chording player (just as he was with Coleman), Bley is responsible for choices about whether this music will sound "pretty" and whether it will feel hemmed in. And he has to ride the line thusly between throughout. About a minute into the piece, for example, Bley plays a lead line around Giuffre's counterpoint that is snaggled and quirky, ending in a series of harmonized trills that mimic the leader's clarinet before a written unison appears. Just before the five-minute mark, however, Bley rises from the steam to play a very lyrical solo that sounds like a blueprint for much of what the world would hear from Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett in the coming years.

A moment later he is playing spiked chordal accents, then reaching into the piano to pluck strings directly. A final written melody emerges, behind which Bley directly connects the legacy of Thelonious Monk's piano to the "out" experiments of this group -- yet another way that Bley is central to making the avant-garde speak to the jazz tradition, one way or another.

Suddenly, Addicted to Bley

With Free Fall ringing in my ears, it was hard for me to stop exploring this remarkable group and this strain of free but very beautiful music that -- insanely -- I'd never been hip to before. I decided to check out Fly Away Little Bird the Giuffre Trio's reunion studio album from 1992. (There are also two worthy live records from the trio's reunion concert in 1989, one covering each night of the New York appearance -- The Life of a Trio -- with Sunday recommended.) The group sounds utterly different: Giuffre is occasionally playing soprano saxophone, Swallow is now playing his familiar and lyrical electric bass, and Bley has developed into a major pianist with a personality that has forged through decades of solo piano, electric experimentation, and consolidation of purpose and technique.

Though there is still plenty of room -- space and air -- in Bley's piano sound, the trio feels dominated by the pianist. His chords and patterns are the house that the trio lives in. Swallow's electric bass has greater upper range and gently generates counterpoint that further underlines the group as a cooperative. The music is not less "free", but it is more communicative and accessible. There is less sonic experimentation just for the sake of it, and the freedoms now serve the pure sculpting of loveliness, even though that beauty can sometimes be jagged.

It is a thrill to hear the group tackle a few standards ("All the Things You Are", "Sweet and Lovely", "I Can't Get Started"), which are so radically remade that they operate as ghosts more than touchstones. And it is Bley, with his harmonic antenna both alert and allergic to too much ease, who keeps these performances edge-of-your-seat essential.

A handful of albums out of more than 100 is a thin slice of Bley, but at least I'm finally on board. Clearly an influence on the modern jazz pianists of the '60s and beyond, Bley also connects to the free tradition of Cecil Taylor, making it more accessible without cheapening it. Bley sits centrally in the group of pianists who have melded inside and outside. In that sense, he brings to mind the late and truly great Don Pullen. Though Pullen -- with his gospel roots and his ecstatic aesthetic -- would seem very different from Bley, I sense that they were brothers, too: making the severe beautiful because, well, it often is.

Next time out: another gap, filled, with The Bix Beiderbecke Legend.

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