Paul Bley, Memorialized in NY Concert Thursday

Paul Bley is featured on The Montreal Tapes, with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

I missed the chance to send off an R.I.P. to the jazz pianist Paul Bley, who died on January 3, at the age of 83, so I'm catching up with this advance notice of a free memorial concert to be held this Thursday night, February 11, featuring piano solos by seven of his acolytes—most notably Ethan Iverson and Frank Kimbrough, whom I've lauded on this page many times. The memorial concert—which also features Rob Schwimmer, Aaron Parks, Lucian Ban, Jacob Sacks, and Matt Mitchell—will be held at 8:00 pm, in the Greenwich House Music School at 46 Barrow Street, New York City.

Though little known outside cloistered jazz circles, Bley ranked among the music's most influential improvisers and, in one crucial episode, an historic enabler. In the fall of 1958, Bley was the 26-year-old leader of the house band at the Hillcrest Club, in Los Angeles. One night, his bass player, Charlie Haden, brought in three musicians, whom he'd recently met, to sit in: trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Bley fired the rest of his existing band, hired Haden's friends, and thus sparked the change of the century.

Bley had come from Montreal through New York, where he'd played with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and other East Coast pioneers. Classically trained with avant-garde leanings, he was waiting for jazz to catch up to the mid-20th century. He met Gil Evans, George Russell, and other composers who wrote music that roamed outside traditional chord changes—until it hit the bandstand, where horn players would take their solos like Parker-wannabes and turn the date into just another bebop blowing session. Ornette Coleman was playing the way Bley had been hearing in his head. Given the chance to play his own music six nights a week, with a band sympathetic to his methods, Ornette developed his sound, and felt inspired to compose still more material, so that by 1959, when Atlantic Records signed the Ornette Coleman Quartet (the Hillcrest group minus Bley, as Ornette decided to drop the chordal presence of a pianist, a move that Bley understood), the revolution—The Shape of Jazz to Come, as their first album was called—popped out of the box fully conceived.

But that was hardly the end of Paul Bley. He continued to innovate, carving paths through the new frontier, composing and improvising music—mainly in solos and small ensembles—in his own distinct style: one that shattered, splintered, or abandoned conventional meters, intervals, and harmonies yet remained riveting, often lyrical, sometimes downright romantic. He also introduced—and adopted into his own playbook of sorts—the tricky compositions of Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, who were his wives at various times, thus lifting the profiles of two important women in jazz, something few other jazzmen have done.

In some of his albums and concerts, Bley played pure improvisation; he grew to detest repetition and predictability. (For his most biting and hilarious comments on the subject, and a fair reflection of what could be his charmingly caustic manner, read this uncut transcript—first published soon after his death—of his Downbeat blindfold test.)

Without Paul Bley, there would not have been Keith Jarrett, or at least not the rhapsodic soloist that Jarrett became—though Bley was more focused and rhythmically concise, without losing a shred of emotion.

To a number of jazz pianists who came along in the 1980s and '90s, Bley had a more profound impact. As Ethan Iverson put it in his blog, "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." Kimbrough, who knew Bley as a friend as well as a mentor, fell under his wing more conscious of its peculiarity. Others too, including Fred Hersch, display signs of his influence.

Many of Paul Bley's signal albums are out of print, but among those still widely available, I would especially recommend Solo in Mondsee, The Montreal Tapes with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and, his last released live solo album, Play Blue.

Also check out his chamber-like intensity on two Jimmy Giuffre Trio albums, which ECM later reissued under the title 1961, and his mind-blowing solo on "All the Things You Are" from the odd but compelling 1963 Rollins-Hawkins album, Sonny Meets Hawk!.

paanders's picture

Thanks for this posting! I must live in the wilderness because I had no idea that Mr Bley had passed. RIP. So many great albums --for his own label in the 1970s and later on ECM, especially-- and what an awesome interviewee. I regret never having a chance to see him live.

It's a shame that Bley couldn't enjoy the wider audience that Jarrett found, but at least we know that Bley was there first, musically speaking, and chose to move on. The interview you posted is sooo helpful in understanding Bley's perspective on all manner of things.

Ali's picture

I very much differ late Mr. Bley with other jazz pianists; Album published by ECM, "In the evening out there" gave me a shock when I first heard it,especially its opening piano piece by Paul, so mysterious , so modern, so unusual and so musical. Whenever I am listening to it, even after all these years, am being transferred to "Out There" . Am heartily sorry loosing him. Tehran

Allen Fant's picture

Very nice! as always, FK.
I love this set w/ the late Charlie Haden!