The Paul Bley Quartet: s/t (ECM 1365)

 

The Paul Bley Quartet

Paul Bley piano
John Surman soprano saxophone, bass clarinet
Bill Frisell guitar
Paul Motian drums
Recorded November 1987, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian again join Paul Bley for a follow-up to the quartet’s stunning debut, Fragments. This self-titled record is another awe-inspiring session and chronicles some of ECM’s most beautiful tales. The slow, 20-minute first chapter, “Interplay,” frees each musician to make careful melodic choices. Motian’s sibilant cymbals are immediately recognizable, grounding Bley’s punctilious chording as Surman paints the night sky with his soprano. Bill Frisell’s rubbery playing proves complimentary in this yielding nexus. Then something happens: the effervescence curls in on itself and Frisell’s ghosted lines blossom from the stem of a bass clarinet before Bley flies away in a pollinated liberation. Configurations shift. Motian shares a masterful exchange with Bley, the former’s brushes skittering over the latter’s pianistic landscape like a field mouse without a predator in sight, for even the graceful hawk of Surman’s soprano cares not for hunting but rather knows it is already the prey of something sonorous, invisible. Frisell undulates like a dark veil between us and Bley’s stars, each lit by a nebulous match. Surman trembles, seeming to chase after his own echoes, as if losing them might spell certain death. And so, he takes solace again in the bass clarinet, making these switches so effortless that one hardly notices them until they peek above the horizon. His soprano treads more cautiously in “Heat,” which continues the chemical reaction. Bley provides the keystone, Frisell the mountain to be split by the unity of their harmonic registers, running like a crack in a windshield that wanders when you aren’t looking. “After Dark” is where the real flames start burning. Surman scampers through a host of constellations, looking for “One In Four,” finding in it a delicate rush of cascading pianism. This superbly erratic flight dips into the final vestiges of “Triste,” a powdery and effervescent solo from Bley that pulls the heart into a self-defeating smile, where the only comfort is the assurance that within music there is validation of our solemnity.

Like an eclipsed sun yawning into the brightness after its respite, the light of this enigma speaks to us quietly, having traveled unfathomable distances to warm our weary minds. It may be a challenge for some, but for those willing to fall without a safety net, it promises flight, flowering and nocturnal.

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