Paul Bley: Fragments (ECM 1320)

Paul Bley

Paul Bley piano
John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet
Bill Frisell guitar
Paul Motian drums
Recorded January 1986 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Of all the chamber jazz experiments perfected by Paul Bley over the years, Fragments is arguably his most profound. This fascinating date finds Bley in the studio with reedman John Surman, guitarist Bill Frisell, and drummer Paul Motian. The pianist pens two pieces here. First is “Memories,” which opens the set and features the burnished sound of Surman’s bass clarinet against Bley’s spindly keys and Frisell’s insectile drones. A soothing and get-under-your-skin kind of track, it breeds a unique power, one that creaks into the bones of the album’s remainder like an oncoming winter. On the flipside is “Hand Dance,” which sounds more like a Motian piece and holds tight to its thematic cliff, never looking down. “Monica Jane” (Frisell) is like the rings of Saturn: separate yet one. Motian’s slow tumble carries us over into every new phrase with delicacy. The composer finally comes out of the woodwork with this one, varnishing his own brand of knotted grain.

“Line Down” (Surman), aside from sporting a pun of Wheelerian proportions, is an even freer tracing of incendiary threads, roped across vast differences yet never breaking. Surman proves yet again why his baritone is unmatched, twisting in and out of all manner of pretzels before sailing into Frisell’s ports of call. Two ballads by Carla Bley lower us into those same nocturnal waters. The bass clarinet swims like a beluga whale through “Seven,” Frisell spiraling around it like dolphin song. “Closer” crawls at its own pace, touched by the guiding hand of history. What else can it be closer to but closeness itself, in which music breathes like fragrance in spring’s last gasp?

Paul Motian counters with two numbers. “Once Around The Park” focuses the lens a little further. Dipped again in the bronze of Surman’s baritone, it sings darkly while Bley’s fingers press the keys like footprints into sand. The conversation continues in “For The Love Of Sarah,” a harmonic duet for baritone and guitar. Combined, these two otherworldly energies make something touching and familiar.

Last is Annette Peacock’s “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway,” a breeze through dying leaves that carries with it the voices of memory with which the album began. It ends on a dark and quiet chord, dropped like a feather on the surface of our slumber.

While it may not be to everyone’s liking, for me Fragments is a pinnacle of ECM production, musical language, and sheer depth of commitment to every moment it documents. Another personal Top 10 candidate and perhaps the most haunting album on the label. I encourage you to let it speak to you.

<< Masqualero: Bande À Part (ECM 1319)
>> John Abercrombie: Getting There (ECM 1321)

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