Paul Bley: Ballads (ECM 1010)


Paul Bley

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock bass
Mark Levinson bass
Barry Altschul drums
Recording engineered by Tommy Nola, Nola Studios, NYC
Recorded 28 July 1967 (Side 1) and 31 March 1967 (Side 2)
Mixing engineer: David Baker
Produced by Paul Bley
Executive production by Manfred Eicher/ECM

Despite being a rather early ECM release, this all-Annette Peacock set already demonstrated the crystal clear recording and wide open spaces for which the label would come to be so well known. Throughout the long opener, ironically titled “Ending,” Bley handles most of the thematic legwork, while the Peacock and Altschul skitter across his ivory surface like ice skaters so skilled that they can stumble on cue. The title is multifarious. It is the ending of a turn; the ending not of a life, but of the fallacy of its fulfillment; an ending of circumstance; an ending of watersheds; an ending of all the things in this world that buy us freedom, only to spit it back in our face. Personally, I think Altschul steals the show here. It’s fascinating to hear a drummer soloing in such slow-moving surroundings. The lagging pace lends further prominence to his playing, underscoring far more than mere virtuosity. As the piece goes on, it trickles like water, perhaps cluing us in on the title’s central meaning: that is, the music’s own loss of energy and creative source, a broken dam letting out its final drops. This is incredibly restrained music-making by a trio we know can swing with the best of them. Next, we have “Circles,” which seems to sweep up the mess of a long-waged battle, all the while showing an immense amount of fortitude in dealing with the prospect of an unclear future. Lastly, “So Hard It Hurts” gives us a vivid sense of Annette Peacock’s compositional audacity and her unique way of turning gentility into pain, and vice versa. This time, Altschul is less cymbal-oriented and more focused on hitting the skins, providing ample room for Levinson’s own inspired fingerwork.

A delicate ridge rises between the musicians like a pyramid in every song, casting a moving triangular shadow as the sun marks its passage through time. The soloing is insightful all around and melodically well-aged. There is a crunchiness to this music, like biting into a confection filled with ever-changing flavors. Classic.

For the more digitally inclined, Ballads has only seen CD reissue in Japan. It is long overdue stateside.

4 thoughts on “Paul Bley: Ballads (ECM 1010)

  1. This album has worked its way under my skin. I haven’t listened to it in a few weeks yet I find myself thinking about it now and again.

    I appreciate your comments about Altschul. He is breathtaking. But this album grabs me on a number of levels – its immediacy, the rawness of the recording (dare I say I wish ECM had held onto this further into their history), and especially Annette Peacock’s concepts. I think she is seriously underrated and I hope for her sake at some point she becomes better recognized.

    Thanks for the great site. It is a great resource and I really appreciate the labor of love.

    1. Brad: My thanks for the heartwarming comments. This surely is a labor of love, yet it is even more gratifying to know that there are so many of you out there who share that love in such deeply personal ways in the listening, the thinking, and the feeling.

  2. Unbelievable! What a phantastic recording quality. Just got this LP, mint, must be the best sound ever captured in the Sixties. Bliss. Music to wake up each and every sleeping brain cell.

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