Service for Paul Bley

Woke up at 3 AM. Something was wrong. Cold in apartment. Felt very strange. Conceded defeat to insomnia, turned on computer. RIP Paul Bley.

Some assaults are impossible to recover from, especially when they are disguised as liberation. I remember it like yesterday, unwrapping Paul Bley’s Hot and placing it on the turntable. The opening surreal motivic piano solo on “When Will the Blues Leave” went through me like a injection of adrenaline.

The older generation got it from Footloose (1962), universally considered one of Bley’s best. In Wisconsin in 1986, there was no goddamn Footloose anywhere. I had to get it from Hot (1985), which has almost the exact same repertoire as Footloose.

The older generation would have known that Bley was simply an alternative. Stationed both in the wrong era and in primitive wilderness, I was free to assume that Bley was the foundation. In a sense my entire career has been a reckoning with this mistake.

(The above was written upon hearing of the Main Man’s death. Later:)

Closing out the ECM nights at Winter Jazz Fest with Mark Turner, I got the sense that nobody had mentioned Paul Bley, so I gave an impromptu speech. Bradley Bambarger asked me for a copy; it went something like this, now fleshed out with more detail.

We are here celebrating ECM, so it is only correct to say something about Paul Bley, who died a couple of weeks ago.

Manfred Eicher and Bley had a close connection. Manfred’s idea and direction about improvised music was greatly informed by the Jimmy Giuffre trio with Bley and Steve Swallow. Eventually Manfred took the (for him) unprecedented step of reissuing two Giuffre Verve records on ECM as 1961.

Two of the earliest and most important records in the ECM catalog, Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Ballads, were Bley-produced tapes purchased by Manfred.

Manfred even played bass with Bley and Barry Altschul for a few gigs in Europe.

In his autobiography Stopping Time, Bley credits Manfred with asking him to make his first solo record. Open, to Love was an early and important example of the long series of beautiful solo piano records from ECM.

The ECM solo pianist who really made a profound impact commercially was Keith Jarrett. The Köln Concert alone gave Manfred freedom to document whatever Manfred felt like recording. Many of the best-engineered records by resolutely non-commercial artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, Kenny Wheeler, and others are the recipient of what one might call, “the Köln grant.”

Jarrett himself, of course, made dozens of fantastic records for Manfred. Jarrett himself, of course, was also deeply influenced by Paul Bley. Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the debt Keith owes to Paul, especially when Keith plays with bass and drums. Keith said somewhere that he listened to Paul’s Footloose! hundreds of times. When I interviewed him, Keith told me that he wanted Footloose! bassist Steve Swallow for his first trio before getting Charlie Haden (who had brought Ornette Coleman to Paul Bley when in L.A.)

The other bassist associated with both pianists is Gary Peacock. Manfred was the one to convince Peacock to return to an active career in music after Peacock’s hiatus in the 70’s, suggesting that Peacock record Tales of Another with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. With Keith at the helm, this configuration would go on to become the now-classic “standards” trio.

In 2000 Keith and ECM released Inside Out, an album of free improvisations with Peacock and DeJohnette. It was kind of a political statement: In the liner notes Keith complains about Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns not understanding free jazz.

One of the few times I met Paul Bley, he fixed me with his eyes. “Did you hear Keith Jarrett’s latest, Inside Out? In it, he proves that he can, at last, play exactly the way I did in 1965.”

Paul could say that about Keith. Paul had the right to say that about Keith.

Paul probably recorded too much. He loved to brag about keeping a cab waiting outside the studio. But Paul’s ECM records were always still an event, for example the ensembles with John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian or the ensembles with Evan Parker and Barre Phillips.

His last record would be for ECM in 2008. When it came out I was pleasantly surprised: I’d heard Paul needed a cane to get around by that point, but he sounded as strong as ever. Play Blue is a wonderful title, a wonderful record, and a worthy valediction.

When I saw Manfred at the festival, I said, “I was sorry to hear about Paul Bley.”

Manfred replied, “He was the poet.”

The memorial concert at the Greenwich House Music School on February 11 was Rob Schwimmer’s idea. Rob is a brilliant musician who can seemingly do anything at a piano or theremin. I visited Rob the day after Paul’s death and Rob played Annette Peacock’s “So Hard, It Hurts,” which he learned from Annette while working with her in the 70’s. I traveled time at that moment, because this piece was one of my absolute favorites from Paul Bley’s Ballads, an album I listened to incessantly as a teenager.

Most of the classic 60’s Paul Bley trio music feature themes from two great composers, Carla Bley or Annette Peacock. The other important composer for Paul Bley was Ornette Coleman. It’s no accident that Footloose! begins with “When Will the Blues Leave?”

Rob also informed me that Annette Peacock’s maiden name was Coleman. While I’ve always known that Paul was married to two of his three important composers, now I also know that two of his three important composers were Ornette Coleman and Annette Coleman.

Rob’s comment: “The ever-tightening circle. Pley Baul!”

More Updates:

In the blizzard I was inspired to watch the snow from my window with the soundtrack of Fragments, the 1985 Paul Bley recording with John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian. There couldn’t be a more representative album for the best kind of ECM curation: “Idea of north,” avant-garde, space, reverb…

Quite possibly Manfred got Surman’s stellar bass clarinet in there specifically to suggest Giuffre.

Among the compositions are Frisell’s “Monica Jane” and Motian’s “Once Around the Park.” Bley didn’t have much truck with “new” sets of chord changes after about 1959, but here he improvises with rare beauty on forms that he must be looking at for the first time in the studio. Wish he had done more of this kind of thing!

I emailed Frisell to praise this masterpiece record and commented, “You must have been happy with the take of ‘Monica Jane!'” He sent me a long reply, which I am reprinting with his permission:

1st notes I played with Paul Bley. …and my first trip away from home after Monica was born. Paul Motian suggested the title “Monica Jane” for that tune.
And then [there was a tour where]
We didn’t use any written music for the whole tour. Every note improvised. Recorded another record at the end of that tour.
It was incredible getting to hang out with those guys. Paul Bley talked about how someday in the future everybody would just get music on their computers …no need for CDs or records anymore. I sort of believed him.
Really hit me hard …the news that Paul Bley had passed. He was one of BIG ones for me.
Boy…these last few years. Heavy. SO many of the guys..the ones that set the bar… that I (we) could always look to …those moments when you’re not sure…all I had to do was think about them for a second…
And now. Orphans.
Up to us now. Whew.

I replied, “If I remember correctly, Paul Motian told me something about this tour, that each gig would start with the band waiting as long as possible to play the first note, and whoever finally gave in and started would have ‘lost.’ Does this ring a bell?”

Bill’s response:

I’m not sure about …”lost”…
but…yea…that makes sense.
And…what I do remember clearly.
Bley had one of those cheap Casio digital watches.
Each night he would ask the promoter how long they wanted us to play….
and he’d set the timer on his watch. 60 minutes …45 minutes…or whatever. That’s how long we played. On the dot.
It got to be amazing with Surman …where we could make up melodies together on the spot…and play in unison. I mean…
It wasn’t like “Trinkle Tinkle” or anything…you know….it was
s l o w…..
But…we were doin it. Following each other.
And …a couple times Bley actually played “All the Things You Are”….him and Motian…
and you know…hearing that …after …you know …”Sonny Meets Hawk”…is one of the most brain cell scrambling life-music changer things I’ve ever heard …
I would want to get in on that SO bad…just a little taste …but….soon as I poked myself in there
…they’d turn left and I’d be left out somewhere else. Which was all good too. Just glad I got to be next to that.
Some nights Bley would just tell one of us to start…alone.
One gig…I think in England somewhere. …was like an old church…REAL echoey …super live room…and Motian started alone …
played for a LONG time….and ..It REALLY sounded like an orchestra …never heard him sound like that. I mean REALLY it was an orchestra.
Stravinsky. HUGE.

The follow-up Quartet from the end of that tour is indeed totally improvised, yet at the same time remains thoroughly compositional. Offhand I can’t think of a better example of this sort of aesthetic. A close listen to both albums has also taught me that I have perpetually underrated John Surman.

Back to Fragments: I regret writing my salvo about Paul Bley and ECM above without first consulting these long. poetic, and detailed liner notes from Steve Lake. Somehow I hadn’t seen these notes before. (Usually ECM doesn’t have liner notes, so that’s probably why I never took out pages from Fragments.) At any rate Lake makes it clear that having Bley back on ECM was a significant event for the label, and lays out the history much better than I do.

In terms of curation and availability, the most important Paul Bley music, his 60’s trio, is a mess. ECM has never released a CD of Ballads except in Japan. Footloose! has extra tracks; good luck with finding that set at a reasonable price. Mr. Joy and Blood are nowhere. The amazing quartet with Gilmore has more tracks than most people realize (you need the Savoy issue, not the IAI.)

You can find Closer on ESP-Disk but the speed is wrong! It’s a half-step too high. This is a real problem. To heck with it: From Rob, here’s a pitch-corrected and slowed-down “Ida Lupino” with Steve Swallow and Barry Altschul.

Keith Jarrett told me Bley was, “Like Ahmad Jamal on different kinds of drugs.” That makes sense especially on this Carla Bley “latin” number. 1965.