Paul Bley: Play Blue – Oslo Concert (ECM 2373)

Play Blue

Paul Bley
Play Blue – Oslo Concert

Paul Bley piano
Recorded live August 2008 at Kulturkirken Jakob, Oslo Jazz Festival
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed October 2013 at Rainbow Studio by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Since appearing as bandleader on ECM’s third release in 1970, Canadian pianist Paul Bley has been a formative presence for the label. Yet despite the classic combos with Evan Parker, Barre Phillips, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian, and other legends, Bley has been at his own most legendary when alone at the keyboard. Open, to love was just the beginning of a highly intermittent journey that continued with Solo in Mondsee, both now achieving trilogy status with the addition of Play Blue.

It’s practically impossible, of course, to discuss ECM’s catalogue of solo piano improvisations without touching on Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, to say little of younger additions Craig Taborn and Aaron Parks. And while it’s easy to lose oneself in the enchantments of these continents, perhaps none is so abundant as Bley’s. As the album’s anagrammatic title suggests, the illocutionary need to perform is in this very DNA. He has such command of his freedom at the keyboard, where he expresses such freedom in his command.


(Photo credit: Carol Goss)

Traversing five tracks averaging 11 minutes each, Bley’s program, recorded live at 2008’s Oslo Jazz Festival, is as hefty as his toolkit, from which he seems to draw on the entire history of jazz to make every invention shine. At just over 17 minutes, “Far North” might make for a top-heavy introduction were it not so intricately pocked by tunnels of play, exploration, and living for its own sake. There is, for lack of a more effective word, an unthreatened quality to this music, as if it were some final refuge of wilderness where fauna thrive by the safety of mutual trust. As with nearly everything Bley touches, the climate is constantly changing: now lush with foliage, now crisp like the tundra. There is sweeping grandeur and gnarled microscopy in equal measure. Like morning and evening, each is a reflection of the other.

From the far north, Bley shifts to the “Way Down South Suite.” Although ultimately more playful and chromatic, it sprouts a much knottier pine before expanding its reach to distant planets. With an open stance Bley navigates these changes as if he has known them before, despite their utter lack of repetition. Earth awaits us with open arms in “Flame.” With classically balladic contours, this intimate journey bears that characteristic Bley edge, which keeps us at full attention by never privileging a single mood over others. Even denser, but also bittersweet, is “Longer,” which leaves “Pent-Up House” to finish things off. This tune by Sonny Rollins, in whose band Bley played in the early 1960s, emerges from the rubble of its original structure. Bley rebuilds it cell by cell, until its compact circle becomes a period at the end of an epic tale.

With this masterful addition to his discography, Bley has proven that not only is he open to love, but also a style of beauty that comes only with age. Let this not be the end.

(To hear samples of Play Blue, please click here.)

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