“OUT FRONT WHEN JAZZ FREED ITSELF”
by Francis Davis
A given in much of the literature on jazz is that a player’s sound on his instrument is an extension of his speaking voice, a clue to his personality. The pianist Paul Bley is an exception to this rule. In the 1960’s, on albums like “Footloose,” with the bassist Steve Swallow and the drummer Barry Altschul, Mr. Bley trimmed the outsize emotions of that decade’s jazz avant-garde to fit the more intimate settings of the piano trio - a major conrtibution to jazz, though one initially drowned out by the angry rant of many of Mr. Bley’s contemporaries on saxophone.
At the piano, Mr. Bley seems to weigh each note before delivering it, even when phrasing at a rapid clip; he will often repeat a phrase, giving it greater emphasis the second time, like someone mulling over what he has just said and deciding it bears immediate repeating, with verbal italics to underscore its importance. Unafraid of silence, Mr. Bley finds ways to make it swing. He is just the opposite in conversation, a nonstop anecdotist with the booming voice and affable manner of a radio disc jockey and an inveterate outsider’s eye for comic detail.
Mr. Bley was there the night that Ornette Coleman, playing an unusual looking plastic alto saxophone, made his East Coast debut opposite the Art Farmer-Benny Golson jazztet at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village in 1959 - the opening volley in the first revolution to shake jazz since be-bop in the 1940’s. "Everybody was there, including Miles Davis, who stood talking to the bartender with his back to the stage, as though he was thirsty and just happened to stop in for a drink.” Mr. Bley recalled during a recent interview from his home just north of Woodstock. Everybody who was anybody in the world of jazz at that time may have been there, but Mr. Bley may have been the only one who knew what to expect from Mr. Coleman and the trumpeter Don Cherry, having played with them regulary in Los Angeles the year before. (They had been members of Mr. Bley’s band along with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, the bassist and drummer Mr. Coleman brought to New York.) “When Ornette finished and the jazztet came on, I turned to the bartender and asked him to dance,” Mr. Bley said. “After Ornette, this band that had sounded top-of-the-line just a week before, sounded like the society band at the Hotel Taft.”
At a time when most musicians were basing their improvised solos as well as their original compositions on the 32-bar, A-A-B-A popular-song format, with its recurring chord changes and clearly delineated choruses and bridge, “Ornette was going straight from A to Z, and nobody knew what hit them,” Mr. Bley said. “They felt threatened. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t walk down Broadway without some musician I knew grabbing me by the elbow and asking me to explain what Ornette was doing.”
Mr. Bley was the right person to ask: he and the trumpeter Herbie Spanier had, at Mr. Bley’s instigation, been playing long, completely improvised duets without chord changes or set tempos in Los Angeles in 1957, a year before Mr. Bley’s first brush with Mr. Coleman. But despite Mr. Bley’s head start in going directly from A to Z he once seemed a somewhat peripheral figure in free jazz, the movement that Mr. Coleman spawned. By the end of the 1960’s, Mr. Bley had become the revolution’s odd man out; second in influence only to Cecil Taylor among free pianists, but by an absurdly wide maragin.
Born in Montreal in 1932, Mr. Bley had played with Charlie Parker and Lester Young as a very young man, and joining Sonny Rollins’s band in 1963 further enhanced his credibility with critics and musicians who deplored most free jazz as the raving of rank amateurs. To Mr. Bley’s disadvantage, however, his music was uncommonly quiet for free jazz, and being white, put him at risk of being drummed out of a movement whose black majority was becoming increasingly separatist.
Now that the smoke of the 1960’s has cleared, there has been a long overdue shift of opinion in Mr. Bley’s favor. “Cecil Taylor is an extraordinary virtuoso who figured out himself the way he wanted to play, but Paul Bley is to Ornette Coleman what Bud Powell was to Charlie Parker,” the influential critic Stanley Crouch said recently, voicing what is becoming a common sentiment. “He was the one who understood what Ornette was doing and who brought that kind of tonal mobility and melodic freedom to the piano.”
Mr. Crouch is an advisor to Jazz at Lincoln Center, a program notoriously dedicated to upholding such verities as those Mr. Coleman dispensed with. Yet Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director, has long expressed admiration for Mr. Coleman’s early music, even while condemning most of what has come in its wake. Mr. Marsalis and Mr. Crouch are usually on the same wavelength, and Mr. Crouch’s favorable appraisal of Mr. Bley surely goes a long way toward explaining his participation in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new series “Duets on the Hudson,” which begins on Saturday. (Mr. Bley will be reunited with Mr. Haden, on a bill that will also feature duets by the pianist Kenny Barron and the alto saxophonist Gary Bartz.)
Reconfiguring Ornette Coleman for piano was no mean feat, because it was accomplished largely in absentia and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds: Mr. Coleman’s own early groups were pianoless, and his free intonation was supposedly antithetical to tempered instruments. But Mr. Bley’s contributions to jazz over the last 40 years hardly end there. One of the many musicians lured by the potential of synthesizers and stacked keyboards in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s he was one of the few to use them for more than whooshing sound effects and cheery funk grooves. And his plugging in had unexpected longterm benefits, both for Mr. Bley and for improvised music in general.
While recording the solo album “Open to Love” for the German label ECM in 1972, in an effort to replicate the longer sustain he like on synthesizer, Mr. Bley requested closer miking and that special attention to be paid to timbre in recording his piano - recording techniques that became ECM trademarks, though they have generally been more associated with Keith Jarrett than with Mr. Bley. Mr. Bley has recently published a memoir in which he proves to be a perceptive jazz critic as well as an engaging storyteller. In “Stopping Time” (Vehicule Press), written with David Lee, Mr. Bley remembers that when he first arrived in New York in the early 1950’s, a handful of composers, including George Russell and John Carisi, were challenging be-bop orthodoxy by writing scores using atonality and free meter. Change was in the wind, but it was revolution from the top down, doomed to failure because after reading the scores, musicians would revert to familiar be-bop licks in their improvised solos. Mr. Coleman was a revelation when Mr. Bley first heard him because he was exploring the same areas as those new York composers, but doing it on the spot, in a decisive victory for improvisation.
“But he was still using steady
tempo, and I thought that was a step back,” Mr. Bley said. The breakthrough
that Mr. Bley had been waiting for finally came in 1964, when the bassist
Gary Peacock called him for a job in Greenwich Village with the tenor saxophonist
Albert Ayler and the drummer Sunny Murray. Mr. Murray’s anarchic drumming
amounted to free counterpoint, and this was confirmation to Mr. Bley that
the final shackles had been thrown off - rhythm instruments had been liberated
from their traditional supporting roles.
This point hints at Mr. Bley’s true contribution to jazz, the rhythmic and harmonic license he allowed his various bassists and drummers beginning in the 1960’s. Miles Davis’s group in the mid-1960’s, with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, is rightly credited with opening up the field for rhythm ections behind horns. But Mr. Bley was the one who brought the same freedom to the piano trio, with bass and drums as interactive melodic partners. What made this all the more remarkable was the constantly changing personnel of Mr. Bley’s trios. Musicians who play together regularly might as well
be married, he said. In the 1960’s, Mr. Bley’s playing seemed indivisible from the writings of his first wife, Carla Bley, a fellow pianist who began to establish an identity as more than her husband’s compositional Adams’s rib only toward the end of the decade.
Following their divorce, Mr. Bley teamed
up with Annette Peacock, the former wife of Gary Peacock, who, though she
was a nonmusician who had never written a single note of music, blossomed
as a composer after marrying Mr. Bley, almost as if in fulfillment of her
husband’s needs. For a time, Mr. Bley played new compositions by both women,
and Mr. Peacock was frequently his bassist. “The
music was easy,” Mr. Bley recalled. “The relationships, though....” Married for close to 20 years now to the video artist Carol Goss, his partner in an independent record label and video production company in the 1970’s, Mr. Bley prefers to dispense with written music altogether.
“Or what I might use is so infinitesimal
that it might as well be totally improvised,” he said. He records prolifically
for a variety of European labels, making a different sort of trio or solo
album for each. His ECM releases, including the recent “Not Two, Not One”
(ECM 1670) with Mr. Peacock and the drummer Paul Motian, tend to be speculative
and impressionistic - though hardly icy - while his releases for the Danish
label SteepleChase tend to be more straightforward and lyrical, often including
Mr. Bley’s angled interpretations of jazz and pop standards. “Notes on Ornette”
(SteepleChase SCCD 314377), with bassist Jay Anderson and the drummer Jeff
Hirschfield, is a buoyant program of vintage Ornette Coleman
that brings Mr. Bley full circle.
Since 1993, Mr. Bley has taught two days a month at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He encourages his students to try their hand at unaccompanied performance, and this is the area he himself is most interested in now. “You think of something in your hotel room in the afternoon and you get a chance to try it out that night,” Mr. Bley said.
“After playing for more than 40 years, you know how to listen to an audience breathe,” he continued. “But I’m not really concerned with the audience, though I know that sounds selfish. The purpose of playing a concert should be to know something at the end of it that you didn’t know at the beginning.”
Copyrighted New York Times 2000.
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