P A U L   B L E Y

De Morgen, Brussels
2 April 2004
"Elegance & Brutality of a Sly Fox"
 by Didier Wijnants

What a sly fox, this Paul Bley! After performing one piece in the elegant hall of Chateau Vilain XIIII in Leut (Maasmechelen) he just stood up, turned around and left the stage… After about 10 minutes he came back and produced an impressive solo concert, full of elegance and backhanded tricks. This 72 year old Canadian piano player hasn’t changed.

The real connoisseurs of Bley (who constituted about half of the audience) understood almost immediately what it was all about: his sudden departure from stage had to do with the phone directories which he normally puts on the piano chair. These telephone directories are the old attention-grabbing trick of Bley, but it’s not just that – they also have a function: this way he could sit higher at the piano and it is easier for him to “attack” the piano from above. It sounds a bit aggressive, but it certainly is a part of his temperament.

Paul Bley is often called lyrical, but in reality he has a much more varied musical personality. He knows how to reconcile elegance and brutality in one single chord. His playing is often paradoxical, and it seldom feels too comfortable. The classical remark about Bley goes that he is the only great piano player who can make a grand piano sound like an upright. Well, the audience noticed this last Thursday in Maasmechelen. Under his hands even the best tuned instrument can sometimes sound like a piece of junk. But the thing is that it is not a matter of sloppiness, it is a thought-through strategy to bring to life unexpected consonances and sounds.  He uses the same disrespectful strategy when he performs jazz standards. “Night & Day”, one of the softest tunes ever made becomes, in his interpretation, quite restless and grim. The opposite is also possible: a sharp Charlie Parker theme, as if by magic, starts to sound elegant.

In the last years quite a few wonder boys have appeared on the jazz scene and they are trying to use the same methods....  With all due respect to their talent and skill, I have to admit that their musical tactics sound more like child play in comparison with a concert of Paul Bley.

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