Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Paul Bley

I remember seeing this performance—from Imagine the Sound, a fantastic 1981 documentary that also features Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Archie Shepp—years ago and being a bit perplexed. Now I'm simply moved. The portion starting around 1:00 crushes me. Some commenters say, perhaps rightly, that Bley is riffing here on the "Lonely Man Theme" from the Incredible Hulk TV show. Either way, this is the epitome of romantic piano*, wherein the player seems to caress the melody along with the keys. For me, it's all in that flammed turnaround at 1:21, like a plunge-and-twist motion, right to the heart. Just one small sensory memory of Bley that I thought of when I heard the sad news of his death.

I know relatively little of Bley's work—there's so much—but I've heard enough to know that he was a giant of personal piano. Blues, abstraction, tenderness. Poise, concision and serenity, but also volatility, instability. (Masabumi Kikuchi clearly picked up on all this, by his own admission; in the Blindfold Test linked below, Bley, somewhat cattily, says the same of Keith Jarrett**, which seems entirely plausible.)

WKCR is a good place to start, if you're in NYC. (This morning they played this and this, both stunning.) I also love this Ethan Iverson piece at Destination Out and this Ted Panken Blindfold Test.

I'll be listening.


Update, 1/6/16:

*It seems to me that this romantic quality of Paul Bley's playing was especially evident when he was interpreting the works of Carla Bley—perhaps not surprising since the two were once married. I bought Open, to Love yesterday and listened straight through. What do you even say about a performance this beautiful? This record, recorded two decades later and featuring many of the same Carla Bley pieces, is also magical.

**Re: the Jarrett comparison, it's interesting to think about the divergent paths these two players took, despite the fact that they were working with similar building blocks: Jarrett ending up with a kind of bravura, extroverted style, and Bley arriving at something far more intimate, an almost private way of playing that exudes an inner glow. You have to lean in to enjoy Open, to Love, whereas, for example, Jarrett's Facing You—released on the same label, ECM, in the same year, '72—leaps out of the speakers to grab your attention with its virtuosity and personality.

Update, 1/8/16:

1) Thanks to Matt Merewitz for bringing this wonderful Nels Cline appreciation to my attention.

2) As I listen further, I'm starting to hear a strong connection between Bley's mature solo-piano work and that of Andrew Hill (compare this to, say, this). Both artists fixated on beauty, but a restless, unstable kind that can fracture and curdle without warning.

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