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)