The Bleys, Part 2: Paul

Speaking of Carla Bley, her ex-husband, Paul Bley, has a new CD, Solo in Mondsee (ECM), and it’s quietly stunning. I’m a bit late with this—the album came out last summer—but then again, it was recorded in 2001, so who’s counting? Paul Bley has been one of the piano giants in jazz for over a half-century. He may be more famous for those he’s introduced to the jazz scene. He led, I think, the first jazz trio that featured Charles Mingus on bass. While house pianist at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles in 1958, he hired Ornette Coleman to play with him (when nobody else would); in fact, what became, a few months later, the first Ornette Coleman Quartet started out as the Paul Bley Quintet, minus Bley. Over the years, he’s frequently played with Ornette’s bassist, Charlie Haden, most recently in a night of riveting duets at the Blue Note in New York. (A couple decades ago, the Montreal Jazz Festival held a weeklong celebration in which Haden led a variety of ensembles; all the sessions were eventually released on CD by Verve; the best of the bunch was a trio session with Bley and Paul Motian.)

The signal thing about Bley, either in solo or with others, is his thoroughly unsentimental romanticism. He steps on the sustain pedal quite a bit, but his most intricate filigree shines through in stark detail. He can wax on a ballad without ever overblowing the flourishes or letting the chords go trite. His left hand coaxes harmonies that, by normal rules, seem a half-step off-key but, upon closer listening, unveil hidden pathways into an otherwise sweet or jaunty melody. Yet the contrast isn’t jarring; it doesn’t even sound like a contrast; the two parts merge perfectly, if unconventionally, maybe because Bley never lets the rhythm flag; his songs—and, though they’re often pure improvisations, they sound like songs—have a muscularity; you can practically feel the notes whooshing through the clef bars.

Solo in Mondsee is just that: a suite of solo piano music, organized in 10 variations of three to eight minutes each, most of it improvised, laid down in a studio in Mondsee, Austria. It’s completely accessible, it invites immersion, and the more I listen to it, the more secret doors I find myself entering. It’s also a wonderful-sounding album; the Bosendorfer Imperial is rich and resonant.

Warren Willos's picture

..just a note to say I really enjoy your column....not a New Yorker, so a tad jealous, but kudos for your work.btw: are you the Kaplan of the ATLANTIC?

Fred Kaplan's picture

Thanks. I've written for The Atlantic, but I'm not Robert Kaplan, who writes for them more regularly. I am the Fred Kaplan who does write regularly for Slate.

Neil's picture

True that Mingus played bass on Paul Bley's 1953 "Introducing Paul Bley" (released on Mingus and Max Roach's Debut records), but I'm not sure you can give Paul Bley much credit for introducing Mingus to the world. You are probably aware of the "Baron Mingus" years (1945-1949) when Mingus released almost 2 dozen sides on the West Coast (this was before he dropped out of the scene to be a mailman, after which he was brought back into the scene by Red Norvo). Anyway, Bley is, like Motian, a man with a pretty amazing musical legacy who seems overlooked.