Paul Bley
Solo In Mondsee


Picture this: It's quite early in the 1970s, and I'm watching a fine journalism program on my TV (it was TV7, I think, or maybe Almanacco? In those days in Italy there were only two State-owned TV channels, all broadcasting still being in b&w). The theme of the program that's airing as I watch is "Electronic Music": a quite mysterious entity whose existence had become known to the general public thanks to the world-wide surprise success, not too long before, of an album by Walter Carlos titled Switched-On Bach. Carlos had rearranged famous pieces by the great German composer, and had proceeded to play them on a large Moog synthesizer; hence, as a result, synthesizers had suddenly become, in a way, "fashionable" items. On the TV screen I can see the bearded face of a middle-aged man; the interviewer asks him something like "Can you make the sound of an H Bomb for me?", the bearded man doing the best he can. In truth, the final outcome leaves quite a bit to be desired, the bearded man then saying something like "Well, there's a lot more work that's yet to be done on my H Bomb".

While I'm aware of the existence of the "fake memories" category, I have to say that I strongly believe that that bearded man I saw on TV was really Paul Bley (who at the time was not even forty years old); hard as I try, I can't seem to remember whether Annette Peacock, at the time his partner in music, was also on that TV show. In a way, that was a really funny perspective for a guy whose "synthetic panorama" consisted of the modular Moog Series III that Keith Emerson played with the hugely popular group Emerson Lake & Palmer, and the agile Minimoog played by Don Preston on the track Lonesome Electric Turkey, a great peak on an album by Frank Zappa titled Fillmore East, June 1971.

One thing is certain: leaving his synthetic explorations in the past, Paul Bley shifted his new interest for the grain of sound in the direction of the grand piano, the instrument on which he had been a first-grade innovator in the course of the previous decade. Then, as it's by now very well-known, while he was about to start recording a new album for solo piano, he asked for a different - and more "intimate-sounding" - mike placement; and so one could say that it was on that album - the highly-acclaimed Open, To Love, released in 1973 - that what is nowadays known as "the ECM sound" (also Keith Jarrett's?) was born. Here I'd really like to mention the left hand parts he played on Not Zero: In Three Parts and Now - both tracks appearing on Not Two, Not One, the excellent 1999 album Bley shared with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian - as being the piano notes more likely to be mistaken for something produced by synthesis.

His discography being quite large, Paul Bley is the kind of musician whose name can be considered as being "obviously well-known": many encyclopedias and books on jazz give him quite a lot of space; specialized magazines regularly review his albums; and if one happens to live in a city where jazz concerts take place, it's quite likely that sooner or later he'll play there. All agree about his strong interest in sound and the personal way he cultivates silence; many talk quite favourably about his careful approach when performing other people's compositions, the first example that comes to one's mind being Open, To Love (but let's not forget about Homage To Carla, released in 1993).

I have to confess I've often had the impression of Paul Bley's work being greatly underrated in some quarters, almost like being that of a mainstream piano player that's not really worth our full attention. And it seems to me that this condition lasted till the moment he released the excellent Time Will Tell (1995), the album he recorded with reedman Evan Parker (so it was just a matter of the company he kept?) and double bassist Barre Phillips (this trio later recording the just as good Sankt Gerold Variations, released in 2000).

If I want to make a quick list of the various reasons which could possibly explain his being so undervalued, the reason that comes at the top would be his being not primarily a composer, but "just" mainly the interpreter of compositions as distinctive and individual as those penned by Carla Bley (née Borg), to which we'll have to add (for reasons of sheer personality, if not for "type") those penned by Annette Peacock; both being very colourful personalities, by the way.

But Paul Bley had played one of his earliest recording sessions alongside Charles Mingus and Art Blakey; he had recorded, on an album under his own name, alongside the whole Ornette Coleman quartet, still to board that fateful plane to New York; he had played with both Sonny Rollins and Albert Ayler - and Milford Graves. So?

As a quick hypothesis I'll have to mention the "Free Jazz" framework of the 60s, a "revolution in music" played mostly on trumpets, saxophones, trombones, drums, and double basses, and definitely not - with the main exception of Cecil Taylor - on pianos (what would have happened to McCoy Tyner had he not been part of John Coltrane's quartet? How many knew about Muhal Richard Abrams?); and by black - not white - people, the main exception here being Roswell Rudd. It was an avant-garde musician considered by not just a few as being "a traitor of his own race", Anthony Braxton, the first one to give their due to musicians such as Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. And it was alongside a musician from the ranks of the "quiet revolution", Jimmy Giuffre, (whose name I first saw in print, mentioned by Carla Bley, in the mid-70s), on albums such as Fusion, Thesis and Free Fall, that Paul Bley gave his innovative and subtle contributions.

Recorded in April, 2001, Solo In Mondsee has Paul Bley playing a mighty-, but also delicate-sounding, Bösendorfer Imperial (whose strong bass frequencies open the album) for a series of Ten "Variations".

Variations on what? Well, I think it can be said that Bley - who obviously improvised a large part of what we hear on the album - follows a personal music thread featuring standards and classical music. I can't really say much about the identities of the material he quotes/refers to, even if once in a while (that mixture of "Chopin" and a "pop" song from the 40s that opens II; the theme at the start, and at the almost-end, on VI; the "andante con moto" on VIII) I seemed to - erroneously? - have names on the tip of my tongue.

Which in a way reminded me of Thelonious Monk when, in solitude, on albums from the latter part of the 50s like Thelonious Himself and Thelonious Alone In San Francisco, he played old standards that nowadays the listener knows only thanks to his interpretations! Anyway, on this album Monk can be heard - just for a moment - here and there, in a blues chord, in a rest, in a hint of Functional.

There's a lot of fun to be had following the thread that goes through this work, hearing the thought process discard an easy solution, a banal cadenza, inserting a dissonance, repeating a note. We also have unpredictable but entirely logical endings of the "abrupt" kind on II and VIII. With lotsa basses, "stopped" high notes (but the pedals are employed with finesse all over the album), a "storm" that morphs into a blues, VII is maybe the best track here.

An unexpected close, X is a latin-tinged "funky & bossa" (with a very sad bridge) where - thanks to his touch - Bley's left almost appears as playing a vintage Fender Rhodes: excellent!

So: not a problem, masterpiece, five stars, etcetera? Well, I have to say that those microphones that recorded the piano so well did the same with Paul Bley's voice every time he followed in parallel his hands travelogue. Here, I'm afraid, every listener will have to judge for him/herself.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007 | Dec. 27, 2007