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.)

Paul Bley: Solo in Mondsee (ECM 1786)

Solo in Mondsee

Paul Bley
Solo in Mondsee

Paul Bley piano
Recorded April 2001 at Schloss Mondsee, Austria
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The release of Solo in Mondsee in 2007 marked the 75th birthday of Paul Bley, and his first solo recording since 1972’s Open, To Love. Like the first, it owes its existence to producer Manfred Eicher, who on both occasions lured Bley onto solitary terrain. This time, the Montreal-born pianist sits at a massive Bösendorfer last heard under the fingers of András Schiff in a New Series program of Schubert’s C-major Fantasies. The instrument equally suits Bley’s preference for long sustains, as made lucid in the album’s opening statement: a resonant hit of the lowest strings. From this he summons ghosts of familiar songbooks, and bodies of those more distant, across ten so-called “Variations,” whose only theme is the absence of one.

Bley’s craft is an admixture of the ethereal and the gravid. He works from a palette so expansive that perhaps only Keith Jarrett has matched it in this unaccompanied format, and with tenderness so beguiling it tightens the ribcage to hear it. The freedom of his exponentially refreshing playing imbues the first numbered section with declamatory sparkle. Like Variation IV, it evokes warmth in winter by a peerless ballet of touch and tendon.

In contrast to these sweeping narratives, Bley gives props to whimsy on a handful of Variations. There are the dissonances and chromatic ladders of II, the centrally focused III, and the busier V and VIII, the eddying of which evokes the end of a waterfall. Variation VI is an especially brilliant turn for its fusion of the epic and the intimate. Its densities never occlude, but allow the light to sing over a flourishing undercurrent. The tenth and final Variation possesses an almost teasing quality, but leads toward a fragile, shape-shifting meditation.

Bley finger-walks on water and gifts solace in return, turning the world into a chamber, and the chamber into a universe.

Bley/Peacock/Motian: Not Two, Not One (ECM 1670)

Not Two, Not One

Not Two, Not One

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded January 1998 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album documents a monumental coming together of pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian, a combination not seen on record since Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, laid down in 1963 and issued 1970 as ECM’s third release. Here the trio picks up where it left off some 35 years before, furthering a journey of deconstruction its members have since charted separately in various combinations. And combinations are really what this session is about, for the trio turns kaleidoscopically throughout, emphasizing certain angles over others in a constant shifting of crystals. One moment finds us mired in the quiet urban fantasies of “Don’t You Know,” in which Bley pours out every last drop from his flask of introspection, while the next tantalizes with “Fig Foot” (“Big Foot” by another name), last heard on Adventure Playground. Bley latterly dances like fire, erratic yet unified by elemental force, following a pattern that is beyond our ken. Peacock is duly inspired in his solo against a delicate swing from Motian, who stays the course with an effervescent washtub beat.

The album’s most notable soundings come from Bley’s pianism, which revels in the depths granted it by studio access to a Bösendorfer. Bley bathes in its open possibilities, moving from a sunny intro in “Not Zero – In Three Parts” to lively reveals of the instrument’s vibrating inner core. This touches off a spate of drums from Motian, whose own soliloquy takes root in the ethereal, and inspires from Peacock a solo that balances integrity with unruliness and ushers in the trio proper with bold progression. Bley’s zither-like touches tip the scales toward all-out swing. “Now” similarly digs low, forming a cascading and complex solo of bridge-cabled intensity. “Vocal Tracked” also finds Bley alone, this time pushing notes like pins into an entomologist’s specimen board. Peacock likewise enchants with “Entelechy,” an elliptical solo track that shows a master at work. He further contributes two tunes: the pirouetted “Intente” and the restless marginalia of “Set Up Set.” Each turns itself like a sentient children’s top, waiting for the moment when its inertia will falter.

Yet together is how the trio shines. In “Noosphere” they work as one amorphous blob, carefree yet passionate. A many-petaled solo from Peacock bespeaks an undaunted hand, thereby flinging the veil of obscurity in favor of transparent expression against Motian’s profound susurrations. And after a luxurious dip in the balladic waters of “Dialogue Amour,” the trio tightens the drawstring with “Not Zero – In One Part,” a brief and burrowing coda.

These three sages of modern jazz neither break down borders nor blaze trails. Rather, they ignore those borders altogether and shape their music as it comes: bare yet flavorful enough to shock your taste buds into bliss.

Bley/Parker/Phillips: Sankt Gerold (ECM 1609)

Sankt Gerold

Paul Bley piano
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded April 1996, Monastery of Sankt Gerold
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake

Time Will Tell was not only the title of ECM’s first document between pianist Paul Bley, saxophonist Evan Parker, and bassist Barre Phillips, but also a premonition realized live in the confines of Sankt Gerold, from which this follow-up borrows its own. The Austrian monastery has hosted many label recordings by groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble, and here the voices are just as distinct. These are musicians who learn how to fly by jumping from the tree, leaving us to gawk on the forest floor. The improvisation that ensues may be free, but from it we are not, buried by the sands of its ephemeral hourglass.

The twelve variations of Sankt Gerold lure us into enchanting freefall with deep, fluttering calls. In these beat the rhythms of worms and larvae, the breaths of a chrysalis, frozen yet somehow alive, hiding its transformations behind a scrim of bark. Steps share the floor with broom strokes and memories created in the moment. This time around the emphasis is as much on solo turns as on groupthink, with the most potent scoops of gravity from Bley, whose sleepwalks play like a kitten who gets only more tangled the more he tries to work through the yarn. Only here, escape would mean silence, a breaking of the line that otherwise holds us fast to the moment. Parker solders our attention with feats of sustained energy. In it we hear ourselves breaking and mending simultaneously, our souls rendered amorphous clots brought to life by embouchure and circular breathing. Philips embarks on the darkest prismatic sojourns, even if they are lit by creativity aflame. His is the meditative center of these infusions, the embryo of some percussive entity that sings as it beats. Together, the trio winds pathos-rich fuses, the ashes of which turn matches into oracles.

To speak of these tracks individually is like trying to extract one letter from the album’s Prussian cover: each needs the others to speak. This music throws open doors of insight to let in the night and day of its containment—beyond it not a room but an infinite body of which we hear one cell dividing. Like affirmation of an unrequited love, one finds its heart by getting lost in it.

Bley/Parker/Phillips: Time Will Tell (ECM 1537)

Time Will Tell

Paul Bley piano
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded January 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Steve Lake

That pianist Paul Bley, reedman Evan Parker, and bassist Barre Phillips had never played as a group before flipping the coin of Time Will Tell matters little. Whether you call heads or tails, you win. The fact that Phillips had played with the two who hadn’t emerges through the sensitive approach he elicits from each. By the same token, one cannot simply say that he tempers what we might be expecting from two powerhouses of the free improv universe. Rather, he spotlights the tenderness already flowing within. The 17.5-minute “Poetic Justice” is proof positive: a meander through darkening trees that breeds not solemnity but a fitful stirring of forest creatures. Parker plays the role of itinerant blues musician mumbling in his sleep. Beyond his chosen paths, the directions are unlimited, their inks varicolored, their maps heavily creased. The trio’s aesthetic borders on beat poetry, pops and whispers taking the place of requisite snaps. With a twang and bend, even a Ravelian shade in the piano, the music soars “Above The Tree Line.” Parker’s soprano, lilting through starlight with immaculate care, forms the top of a pyramid grounded in Phillips’s sands. In this chamber within a chamber, the footsteps of the spontaneous way echo in complex reinforcement. “You Will, Oscar, You Will” is another origami pact of inspiration in which one can almost hear the memory of Paul Motian wanting to join. “Sprung” guides soprano down an ant line of activity, circularly breathing while festooned from galaxies pregnant with impending doom—all making for a sort of agitation that is strangely moving. “No Questions” brings more loveliness into the equation, blowing like a soft curtain through the sunlit room of Andrew Wyeth’s Chambered Nautilus, where only yearning may catch itself from time to time in the reflection of a burnished bedpost. “Vine Laces” and “Clawback” are both wondrous bursts from Parker, who finds respective company with Phillips in one and Bley in the other. “Marsh Tides” promises a smooth jazz number, but instead breaks its fall with measured insight, as honest as it is unplanned, and brings us into “Instance,” another excursion of extended technique between Parker and Phillips, the latter drawing strings of rusted light through “Burlesque.” Shades of late-night happenings end in an abrupt inhalation without repose.

Something grandly intimate is taking place here, for while there may not be much to hold on to in this sound-world of fleeting statements, we are left with an overwhelming amount to mull over. The title of this album is therefore an appropriate one, for only time will tell whether or not its sounds will find a secure place in your listening.

<< Lena Willemark/Ale Möller: Nordan (ECM 1536)
>> Azimuth: “How it was then…never again” (ECM 1538)

Bley/Peacock/Oxley/Surman: In The Evenings Out There (ECM 1488)


In The Evenings Out There

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock bass
Tony Oxley drums
John Surman baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Recorded September 1991 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This wondrous date finds pianist Paul Bley, reedman John Surman, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Tony Oxley in a blissful state of affairs. Not since the deeply felt Fragments had a quartet so honestly captured the spirit of free jazz at its most humbling. The music on In The Evenings Out There, punning on the Carla Bley tune “In The Mornings Out There,” is a canyon in ECM’s vast improvisatory continent. “Afterthoughts” sets the tone with a voice that whispers like memory yet speaks of the here and now. It moves from somber tears to insistent runs, from horizontal planes to sharp and rugged inclines, in the space of a heartbeat. With “Portrait Of A Silence,” we find that the album is more about space than time, for each facet of this misted jewel is made of various combos. This, the first of two solos from Peacock, reveals a player who knows his instrument like his own body. He explores architectural details of jazz that others too often neglect and grinds them down into handfuls of prayers.

Some of the titles seem arbitrary. “Soft Touch,” for one, brings out some of the album’s sharpest points. Yet one doesn’t listen to such music for track listings. One surrenders instead to the lovely geometric exercise of “Speak Easy” or the full quartet musings of “Interface.” Surman’s timeworn baritone seeks nourishment in the latter’s shadows, bringing us into “Alignment,” which recalls his self-referential solo work elsewhere. His bass clarinet in “Article Four” speaks that same nocturnal language, tracing its own demise like a shooting star. “Fair Share” is a buoyant duet between Bley and Peacock that breathes by the edge of understanding and drops us into a bog of sentiment. Bley offers the album’s final words. The solo “Married Alive” crosses over into explorations with Oxley in “Spe-cu-lay-ting” before ending with “Note Police,” breaking through the clouds at last with unfettered light.

This is an intuitive sort of music-making, brimming with lessons of hardship. Utterly remarkable.

<< Paul Giger: Schattenwelt (ECM 1487 NS)
>> John Abercrombie Trio: While We’re Young (ECM 1489)

Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961 (ECM 1438/39)

Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961

Jimmy Giuffre clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Steve Swallow double-bass
Fusion recorded March 3, 1961 in New York
Thesis recorded April 8, 1961 in New York
Originally produced by Creed Taylor for Verve
Engineer: Dick Olmstead
Remixed June 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher
Reissue produced by Manfred Eicher and Jean-Phillipe Allard

A true arbiter the chamber jazz idiom before it even was one, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre was brought back to vivid life in this much-needed ECM rescue. Engaging a then-acoustic Steve Swallow on bass and a gushing Paul Bley on piano in a twofold session of ruffled play for Verve (who showed no signs of reissuing these great works), Giuffre brought his signature silken tone to an ephemeral trio whose tuneful interactivity made for gobs of affirming music. In a wonderful encapsulating essay, Steve Lake tells us that the group had by this point reached a state of free jazz that dove past the blaring expectations of its current fashion and headed straight into the instincts beating quietly below.

We hear all of this and more from breath one in the album’s first half. While its title, Fusion, may sound tongue-in-cheek by today’s standards, Lake reminds us that the term had “nobler connotations” back then, bespeaking something tactile and ahead of its time. A couple of Carla Bley tunes stand out. Of the former, “Jesus Maria” would still the heart of a demon. With a clear and present lyricism, it traipses its way into the mind and redecorates our expectations of what a clarinet can sound like. The rest of Fusion comes from Giuffre, whose own compositions reveal a musician bent on practicing what he preaches. The lilting energy of “Cry, Want” fans its wonders like a deck in a magician’s hands, distracting us with its melody (the card we’ve been forced to pick) in lieu of a desired effect. Even more evocative is “Afternoon,” which imagines sunlit streets, walks hand in hand, and the carefree pleasures of a life given to the moment. “Brief Hesitation” is a slightly halting piece, with more enviable tone from Giuffre, who seems to grow with every breath. For all the reasons above, “Trudgin’” is, to borrow from an infamous Saturday Night Live sketch, positively scrumtrulescent and a personal favorite of the collection.

Honorable mention must also be given to Swallow, whose sheer percussiveness in tracks like “Scootin’ About” and “Venture” is so astute that, at times, one almost hears the cymbals of an absent drum kit.

The companion album, Thesis, again sports another pair of Carla Bley classics. The first, “Ictus,” sets a more freely flowing tone for this set’s second half. The fluid interplay between Bley and Giuffre is pure and subtle magic. From songs by Carla to one about, we arrive at “Carla,” penned by former husband Paul. From Giuffre’s delicate arpeggios to the confident bass support and attuned pianism, this one plunks us right into the spirit of things and is a perfect little thing. Other notables include “Whirrrr,” which puts one in mind the whirligigs of childhood, and the dynamic spread of “The Gamut.” Gordon Jenkins gets a treatment in “Goodbye,” which boasts some downright totemic interactions between Bley and Swallow and piercing overtones from Giuffre, while “That’s True, That’s True” brings dreamy groove back into style. “Me Too” feels like a lost cut from Fusion, and its sprightly energy contrasts whimsically with “Herb & Ictus,” a studio outtake that offers an endearing look at the camaraderie behind the scenes.

Giuffre’s vision spoke in shapes and colors. It was, in a word, painterly. This being my first Giuffre experience, it is one I will always treasure. Warmly recorded and remastered, it is a testament to the communicative skills and equity of the 1960s greats. The music on this essential set is sure to be relevant as long as there are ears to hear it.

<< Masqualero: Re-Enter (ECM 1437)
>> Keith Jarrett Trio: The Cure (ECM 1440)

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.

<< Tamia/Pierre Favre: de la nuit … le jour (ECM 1364 NS)
>> John Surman: Private City (ECM 1366)

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)