Thursday, January 14, 2016

Paul Bley Plays Standards, 1988

I recently learned of the passing of Canadian pianist Paul Bley, 83, which happened on January 3 at his Florida home. Born in Montreal in 1932, Bley was one of the most innovative jazz pianists to come on the scene in the 1950s and '60s, and he was known for his inventive improvisational skills that helped him create a sound that, though based on bop and hard bop, was extremely personal and unique. Bley was also a very prolific musician, with a discography that is simply monumental, and throughout his long career, which is fortunately very well documented on record, he was a tireless experimenter who even tried his hand at playing the synthesizer in the 1970s and made it work. His personal and professional associations with his first and second wives, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, were very satisfying artistically though they didn't last too long, and his work displays such a consistently high quality that one can't truly comprehend the development of modern jazz without acknowledging Bley's trailblazing role. Over the years, he performed and recorded alongside such giants as Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Donald Byrd, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Giuffre, to name but just a few, supporting them superbly and inspiring them constantly to go beyond the conventional improvisational parameters of the time. And on the countless albums he made as a leader, Bley's vision was always different and sounded necessarily modern because he seemed to know exactly what he wanted to attain with his music, whether playing in a straight-ahead jazz context or experimenting with electronic instruments.

One of my favorite albums by Paul Bley is The Nearness of You (SteepleChase), cut in November 1988 in a trio setting with Ron McClure on bass and Billy Hart on drums. On this occasion, Bley selected eight tried-and-true standards, all of which become vehicles for long improvisations that allow the pianist to reinvent the melodies and play with approaches and tempi, thereby breathing new life into well-known, recognizable songs. We can already hear this on the album opener, "This Can't Be Love," taken at a fast, swinging pace, as well as on Oscar Pettiford's "Blues in the Closet," which leaves ample room for long solos by everyone involved. The title track, lasting over 12 minutes, is a standout in the ballad department, and "What a Difference a Day Makes" starts off with a slightly Latin beat and is good proof of Bley's stunning improvisational skills, complete with an unexpected quote from Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke's "Midnight Sun." Bley also plays two other ballads, "These Foolish Things" and "We'll Be Together Again," with great delicacy, building upon the groundwork laid by the rhythm section and taking the melodies to a whole new level. This happens also on the final track, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," where even the introductory vamp is completely reworked in a very percussive way with the help of Hart's energetic drumming. It's the icing on the cake of a fantastic album, one of several that Bley cut in the 1980s for SteepleChase, and one that clearly shows the genius of a man who spent his life and career striving to go beyond the accepted norm and did it with personality and huge amounts of imagination and class. No doubt he will be sorely missed.

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