SOME THOUGHTS ON PAUL BLEY
The news that the great jazz pianist Paul Bley has passed has sent me into some deep reveries, sent my mind and heart on a few choice tangents. You see, Paul Bley has had a tremendous impact on my way of thinking about music, improvisation, and so-called jazz.
I think I first heard his solo piano record "Open, To Love", the now-legendary ECM recording from the 70s. It contains pieces by Carla Bley and Annette Peacock that I still play to this day, as anyone who has followed my concerts over the last three decades or so may know. Songs like "Touching", "Ida Lupino", and "Albert's Love Theme" sent me to a moody and beautiful realm and they still do. Paul Bley, apparently not a composer - pieces attributed to him seem to be spontaneous improvisations - seemed to have, by virtue of his intimate relationships with these two singular composers, perhaps implicitly commissioned these works to showcase his uniquely blues-inflected and harmonically probing playing style, which was, by this time, quite free.
I became quite obsessed with Paul Bley after this and, seeing as how I ended up working in a record store around this time that had tons of cut-out and obscure jazz records, I started catching up on the man's recorded output. His seminal trio recording "Footloose" (with Steve Swallow and Pete LaRoca), which even the generally ungenerous Keith Jarrett credits generously as an influential record, was a crucial step in my learning about how Bley had freed his trio of playing over song form/set chord progressions. This was no doubt an outgrowth of his intimate exposure to the music of Ornette Coleman, whom he hired (along with Ornette's entire band!) in 1958 at Los Angeles' Hillcrest Club (the move got him and the band canned). Bley had come out of be-bop, highly influenced by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. His adaptation of Ornette's "free jazz" seems to be the beginning of a lifelong path of playing songs with ultimate freedom and spontaneity. One can hear these recordings from 1958, as Bley used to cart around a reel-to-reel tape recorder and record gigs and rehearsals, leaving the world with invaluable documents of his work. ECM Records eventually released some of these "home recordings" on "Ballads" and "With Gary Peacock", two of my all-time favorite records. By the time I caught up with "Mr. Joy" (with Gary Peacock and the amazing and almost totally overlooked Billy Elgart) and "Turning Point" (with Gary Peacock, John Gilmore in one of his rare non-Sun Ra appearances, and Paul Motian), I was happily lost in Paul Bley's world. Even the photos for the "Mr. Joy" album had me reeling - the shot of Bley, ubiquitous smoke billowing as Annette Peacock stretches in the window of their New York City loft… I started trying to write and improvise pieces that mimicked these compositions, tried to play guitar improvisations based on my neophyte impressions of Bley's style, his melodic and harmonic singularity and deep mood. This was maybe 1976 or '77 when I was maybe 21 years old, playing in the back room of my parents' house with my twin brother Alex (who really GOT what Barry Altschul and Billy Elgart were up to in this music) and our friend Lee Kaplan, who was just starting to play the acoustic bass and, as such, could play slowly enough to let the mood hang, suspend… It was probably pretty lame, but we were INTO IT, and I felt a genuine pull towards this mode of expression. If you go back and listen to recordings by my first Trio and by The Singers, you will find that every one of these records has some floaty ballad that is directly influenced by this music I am writing about. Pieces like "The Rite", "Lucia", "The Divine Homegirl", "Recognize I & II", The Androgyne"… Records that followed on Bley's own I.A.I. (Improvising Artists Inc.) like "Virtuosi" (more ballads!) and "Alone (Again)" - perhaps just as great as "Open, To Love", fueled my obsession.
I only saw Paul Bley play 'live' on one occasion, and that was in the mid-70s. My friend Lee - mentioned in the above paragraph - and I flew to San Francisco late one night to catch him in what we thought was to be a duo concert with Gary Peacock, who was also one of our musical heroes and who had an amazing track record of serious chemistry with Bley. Back in those days, one could fly standby at 11PM from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $17! And Bley, having lived for many years in the 50s in Los Angeles, seemed to avoid it like the plague now, so north we headed, staying with a voracious jazz collector Lee knew named Michael Rubinoff, who had an apartment in Diamond Heights (note: it was during this stay that I ended up hearing a super-rare record called "The Horizon Beyond" by the Attila Zoller Quartet, another revelatory and long-lasting musical awakening). The concert was at The Great American Music Hall, and it could not have been a more perfect venue. But it turned out that this was a solo concert, not a duo gig with Gary Peacock, which probably had my bassist friend Lee whimpering inside with disappointment. I, too, felt a pang of woe. But the concert was unadulterated, classic Paul Bley solo piano. I had heard that he always put a New York City phone book on the piano bench to achieve extra height, and indeed he WAS sitting on a phone book, his legs coolly crossed, though I have no idea if it was really of the NYC strain. But I do remember a particularly harsh, polytonal rendering of "Mr. Joy", and a moving and almost funky version of "Ida Lupino". I was in heaven… Lee was also doing a bit of music writing back then and seemed to have entree to all sorts of backstage situations, which usually left me feeling awkward and self-conscious. But backstage we went, wherein I guess I shook Paul's hand at some point - I really don't recall. Bley was such a daunting figure - a legendary hustler, exuding supreme command and self assurance, pulling the strings, as it were. I was afraid of him! I ended up outside with the guitarist Bill Conners, with whom I had been ready to study until he strangely blew me off, and had a completely weird almost-conversation with him until Bley emerged and exclaimed, "Come, William!" and they were gone. Bill Conners - a fantastic and fascinating guitarist - had been playing some with Bley at that time, as he did on the I.A.I. release "Quiet Song", which also included Jimmy Giuffre…
Paul Bley went on to release dozens and dozens of recordings, many of them solo piano improvisations or reinterpretations of jazz warhorses or the Carla Bley/Annette Peacock canon. In the late 80s he reunited with ECM and released two recordings of The Paul Bley Quartet with John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian that are, to my mind, miracles of deep listening. When things get a little too hooked-up, too unified or extemporaneously tonal, Bley tosses in some new idea to skew the tonal center, to push the music forward. He also reunited with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (one of my favorite rhythm sections of all time) as well as with Gary Peacock for some wonderful recordings.
I read that Paul died of natural causes at his home in Florida, surrounded by his family, after teaching and continuing to play and record for many years. I guess I lost the thread a bit and need to catch up on some of this later work. But his influence on me continues to be strong, pervasive. The great guitarist Jeff Parker and I, when we discovered that we both adore the record "Turning Point", started a quartet with Nate McBride and Frank Rosaly to play those songs together, which we still are able to do occasionally. And my upcoming double record "Lovers", to be released this summer, features three pieces that became known to me because of Paul Bley: "Cry, Want" by Jimmy Giuffre, and two Annette Peacock compositions done as a suite, "So Hard It Hurts" and "Touching". The 'live' disc from my band The Singers' CD "Initiate" has a version of Carla Bley's "And Now The Queen", which Paul Bley interprets so beautifully on "Alone (Again)". I am still trying to absorb this music and let it infiltrate my work. I find it to be sublime.
When I was working at the record store back when, there was a painter who came in all the time to buy jazz records, which he listened to while he worked. We would often end up in discussions and gently heated bouts of opinion regarding records, and I was always trying to get him to get into Paul Bley. But he always said the same thing: "His stuff is just too…COOL for me", by which I think he meant both cool as in hip and cool as in icy. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul Bley was, musically-speaking, the hip kind of cool. Just take a listen and look at the man circa 1966! But icy?… I think "considered" is what describes what may be mistaken for "icy" - his cogent use of space, dissonance, all with a decidedly bluesy, neo-Ellington inflection - which is just fucking cool, yes. But beyond these coolness considerations, I feel drawn into a very personal world, an intimate state of reverie informed by highly developed musicality and restrained yet palpable emotion. Maybe you can dig what I am saying - if you listen.
Paul Bley, rest in peace. Thank you for your music.
New York City
(January 7, 2016)
WHAT'S OUT THERE NOW AND WHAT WILL BE OUT THERE SOON ENOUGH
STAINED RADIANCE - Norton Wisdom and me, DVD reissued! (The Alstro Imprint DVD)
This is the first and so far only actual movie I have produced to date, and it was made a few years ago to document the ongoing collaboration I do with 'live' painter Norton Wisdom called Stained Radiance. It was expertly directed and edited by Los Angeles-based wunderkind Aeght Nign, and it captures two spontaneous performances done just for this DVD at Downtown Los Angeles' legendary all-ages club The Smell (along with the requisite Bonus Features). This was originally (and almost secretly?) released through Greenleaf Music and went out-of-print rather quickly. Since Norton and I actually have some engagements together this year (including one at this summer's Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, MA, as well as at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN this spring) and since I love and believe in this project and in this document, I have created my own entity to re-release it called The Alstro Imprint. That's right! I am joining the legions of unintentionally not-for-profit companies releasing cultural artifacts. So order up!
Here are some recent recordings I played on, and some are currently available. I never seem to know when these things emerge in the real world. For example, I played on the recent recording by the powerhouse singer and all-around lovely person Joan Osborne and only recently realized that the record, called "Love and Hate", has been out for over 9 months! Ah well…
BOBBY PREVITE with SO PERCUSSION: "Terminals" (Cantaloupe Music CD, vinyl, download)
Subtitled "five concerts for percussion ensemble and soloist", this excellent document features yours truly as one of the five featured soloists. The others, who perform Mr. Previte's compositions along with the amazing Brooklyn-based ensemble So Percussion, are: Zeena Parkins (harp), John Medeski (keyboards), Greg Osby (saxophone), and Bobby himself (drums). Not kidding! This was a real blast to play 'live', and this studio recording of the guitar piece is even more focused and incendiary in many ways than that performance. I will be playing the piece with these fellows later this year [please supply info for that June gig].
BROTHER'S SISTER'S DAUGHTER: "BSD" (Rallye Label, Japan CD)
Recorded in Tokyo a few years ago on my first-ever visit to Japan (thank you, Mike Watt!), this recording was finally released late last year (2014, for those keeping track). It is essentially bassist/composer/avuncular whirlwind megaforce Mike Watt's Japanese band that I got to play with. Everyone involved contributed some music and/or words. Watt on bass & vocals, Hirotaka "Shimmy" Shimizu on electric guitar, Yuko Araki on drums & vocals, and yours truly on electric guitar. Shimmy-san (a rather wizard-like individual) recorded/mixed/produced this record. What fun! I wrote a song on it that later ended up being titled "Crystal Clear" owing to Yuko's recited poem at the end. A lot of this music really rocks out, some of it is really spacey and sublime. The great guitarist Shimmy is heard to excellent advantage as well as is the ever-amazing Yuko-san, whom some of you may have heard not so long ago with Cibo Matto, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Cornelius... By the way, Shimmy and Yuko have an excellent ongoing duo called Mi-Gu that you should all check out.
BEN GOLDBERG: "Orphic Machine" (Royal Potato Family & BAG Production Records, CD, vinyl)
This amazingly ambitious and visionary project by clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg is impossible to categorize. It features a 9-piece band: Ben (clarinets), Ron Miles (cornet), Rob Sudduth (saxophone), Carla Kihlstedt (voice, violin), Myra Melford (piano), Greg Cohen (bass), Kenny Wollesen (vibes, drums), Ches Smith (drums, vibes), yours truly (electric guitars) and is a sort of song cycle with words taken from a rather abstruse treatise on poetry by Ben's late teacher Allen Grossman, who passed away not long after this recording was completed. The music is often strangely accessible in that Mr. Goldberg draws upon elements of R 'n B, blues, "art song", as well as jazz and the jazz avant-garde. I really think this is amazing, but I have trouble describing it! I suggest you listen for yourself. Expertly recorded and mixed by Ron Saint Germain and produced by David Breskin, it comes out in late March.
I am certain that I am forgetting something, but that's it for now.
Upcoming but currently looking for a street date is:
WHITE OUT with NELS CLINE: "Accidental Sky" (Northern Spy vinyl)
A superb document of my sporadic and ongoing collaborations with NYC-based spaceprov duo White Out (AKA Lin Culbertson on synth, flute, autoharp, & voice and Tom Surgal on drums & percussion). The record was recorded in Lin and Tom's apartment! Stay tuned…
BIG WALNUTS YONDER
Last year I recorded for 3 days in Brooklyn with what Mike Watt is calling Big Walnuts Yonder, a collaborative project based on songs and bass riffs/structures generated by Watt and including Greg Saunier (drums), Nick Reinhart (guitar), and yours truly (guitar), and of course Watt on thunderbroom/thudstaff. Everyone had at least a song for the song stew and contributed arrangement ideas. I did not know Nick Reinhart (of Terra Melos) before this, but he is a fantastic guitarist in a world of effects pedal manipulation/acumen that is at a whole 'nother level. I guess he is putting vocals on these tracks, and I don't know if the lyrics are all his or whether Watt is contributing, suggesting ideas. Greg Saunier is one of my favorite musicians. Those who know me know that Deerhoof, in which he plays drums and writes a LOT of the music/gives direction, is one of my favorite bands of all time. They are still rocking and ruling! Greg brought his expertise not only in terms of mad drumming but also in terms of production and arrangement ideas. I have a song on the record that I wanted to submit to address/amplify Watt's Coltrane obsession (in this case, late-period "Stellar Regions" Coltrane, but with messed up electric guitars). I can't remember now what I decided to title that piece, but I am supposing that this record will emerge later this year. The session was really fun and congenial. Check out Nick Reinhart! And stay tuned for street date info.
THOLLEM/WIMBERLY/CLINE - "Radical Empathy" (Relative Pitch Records CD)
This trio recording of all-improvised music was done last winter in the East Village (NYC) and was instigated by nomadic keyboard improvisor/genie Thollem McDonas. On drums, the amazing Michael Wimberly, whom I had met once before this confab when he played with Charles Gayle at my old (mid-90s) concert series at The Alligator Lounge. He blew me away then and he blew me away at this rather informal yet intense session. Thollem planned to play mostly an electric piano that he had a hand in designing, but it got derailed/temporarily lost by an airline whose name will go unmentioned here. Thus, he made do with a "microtonal" (polite pseudo-legit term) spinet piano, a host of only partially-explored effects pedals, and some keyboard at the studio that had organ sounds. The resultant document is "Radical Empathy," recorded by Eli Crews, mixed by Nicholas Taplin and mastered by Myles Boisen. To sweeten this sweet and piquant pot, Fred Frith wrote the liner notes!
MACROSCOPE - Track-by-Track
Leading up to the April 29 release of The Nels Cline Singers' MACROSCOPE, Nels wrote track-by-track descriptions of the 10 songs on the album. Get the record CD, LP and digital HERE.
Just Scott, Trevor, me. A ballad that I had in my head that gradually erupts into BIG ROCKOUT that in retrospect has an unintentional Rush flavor! Playing the HOT SHIT solo in the studio is so difficult for me... Should be a scorcher 'live'.
A groover in 6/4 dedicated to our wonderful friend and remarkable chef Paul Canales. Written in Scott's house during our little residency at Paul's Oakland eatery DUENDE, it's a bit like some of my other tunes from days of yore but not. This is another one with just the trio and is saying 'hello' to Paul and to you all...
BREATHE! With Yuka C Honda, Cyro Baptista, Josh Jones all guesting, this uses the Zawinul/Ornette strategy of rubato melody/harmony floating over a solid groove. I actually do wordless vocals, a nod to my Brazilian heroes like Baden Powell and Hermeto Pascoal - humor me here, folks! But oddly, I was actually thinking about Caetano Veloso when I wrote this... The groove, involving a loop created by Scott's electronic world, coalesces at the end with a mighty ostinato, Yuka's electric piano drenched in Seek-Wah (google it) rising like celestial orbs... I play electric 12-string on this and several other tracks on this album if anyone cares.
Red Before Orange:
Lounge-y! Smooth jazz! The Quintronics Drum Buddy (google it) sets up a groove/progression that I wrote in the studio to entertain my wife and to potentially shock and/or dismay all the rock and free jazz people out there. Hah! It probably won't work... This is also a sort of tribute to two guitar heroes: George Benson and Jimi Hendrix, which is pretty obvious once one hears this, I suppose. Yuka, Cyro, and Josh all return as potent and cherished guests. It is my not-so-secret hope that someone samples a part of this for a rap song someday...
The Wedding Band:
A bit of a journey, this is heavy with Scott/Cyro/Josh percussion and ends with a hypnotic repeating melody/progression that is still shocking to me since it's basically a 1-4-1-4-5-4-1 type of thing in D major. What?! The influence of Wilco perhaps? Maybe an incursion of folk/country content?? Or the sound of celebration?... Indeed, this is meant to be a trip to breezy and celebratory energy, erupting in a veritable fireworks display of whooping psychedelic noise by song's end. Check out Trevor in the middle bit! And for all of you linguists out there, the title has a double meaning. The opening five-chord melody, a preview of the celebratory ending melody, features Scott's fuzzed-out mbira (google it). And again I am on electric 12-string (some looping madness in the open opening section) with lap steel overdubbed on the repeating "song". I have no clue now how to get this to sound like this 'live". I guess I need to expand the combo...!
Macroscopic (For Kusama-San):
A ballad of sorts and (to me) a blatant reference to Hermeto Pascoal's pieces for Miles Davis such as "Little Church", this arid bit of wistful psychedelia is dedicated to the brilliant artist Yayoi Kusama. The gradual incursion of sonic particulate matter is meant to suggest her "infinity nets", and is held together by the gravitation field created by the sound of my pal (and co-producer) David Breskin rubbing his hands together. Much could be written about this but I am trying to be brief... Scott and Yuka create the particulate matter electronically (with a funny drum box and OP-1, respectively), Trevor plays contrabass, and I play treated acoustic guitar (thank you, Jesse Nichols!) and once again my wonky voice appears in a somewhat murky manner.
Featuring the remarkable Zeena Parkins on her electric harp, this was a short Drum Buddy jam that had such savage beauty from Zeena and such a deep groove from Scott and Trevor that I had to do something with it. I went in and added some guitar bits for harmonic cohesion, but the main "voice" you hear is Zeena doing her thing - at one point it even sounds like someone is speaking! Eerie and astonishing... The track sort of reminds me of Public Image, Ltd. and if you wish it was a bit longer, so do I!
Seven Zed Heaven:
Opening with a blatant reference to 60s/70s lines like "Freedom Jazz Dance", "When Face Gets Pale"(google it) and the like and landing in a vast ascending elegy, this is an excuse to blow free as well as to surrender to harmonic wonder. Cyro returns with magical percussion color, Trevor solos on contrabass, and by song's end Scott plays his ride cymbal with one hand while sampling and morphing the sound of the entire band with his pedal array with the other. We can do this 'live', folks! Once again, I play electric 12-string.
The title and riffs for this paean to snarling psych/garage rock came to me while on a visit to my hometown of Los Angeles. I was crawling (natch) on the 10 Freeway and BAM! This is either a testimony to our stylistic flexibility or a cautionary tale of how one may not really need to realize every idea that comes into one's head..! Anyway, it opens with a pounding Drum Buddy improv that I was calling "Psychopartyprov" and eventually the fuzz-drenched caveman "song" hits, endeavoring to both make you smile and crush your brain. The ascending bridge after the bonehead guitar solo is my personal reference to The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action", even though the resemblance is pretty minimal.
Sascha's Book of Frogs:
Scott Amendola's son Sascha has a cute book with pictures of all types of frogs. I can't remember the title, but it might be "Frogs". It's cool and so is Sascha. This piece, meant to be a fun design for mostly free improvisation, marks a first for me in that I have never ended a record on such a whimsical note. But what the heck? My records usually end with either "poignant balladry" or "searing catharsis", or an attempt at both simultaneously! Anyway, this trio piece may be a trifle but to me it is also a nice balancing ingredient to the program, is fun to play, and is an oblique conclusion made even more oblique by David Breskin's suggestion to end with what was originally the second-to-last written line. Good idea, db! And with that, I bid you goodnight...