Canadian-born white pianist Paul Bley (1932), who relocated in 1950 to New York to study at a prestigious school of music and was hired by Charlie Mingus in 1952, was honored, at the young age of 21, by Mingus on double-bass and Art Blakey on drums on his debut trio sessions, Introducing Paul Bley (november 1953), that already featured some of his inspired originals (Opus 1, Spontaneous Combustion) but was still under the influence of Lennie Tristano's bebop style.
Bley began to emancipate his performance from that cliche' on
Solemn Meditation (1957), another quartet but with Dave Pike on vibraphone and Charlie Haden on double-bass (his recording debut).
In 1957 Bley married composer Carla Borg, moved to Los Angeles and formed a
quintet with Ornette Coleman (alto saxophone), Don Cherry (trumpet), Billy Higgins (drums) and Charlie Haden (double bass), documented on
The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet (october 1958), that straddled the line between
bebop and free improvisation (a Coleman piece is titled Free).
A trio with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca on
Footloose (september 1963) evoked the contemporary experiments of Tristano and
Bill Evans with a set of graceful vignettes (including Carla Bley's
Floater and King Korn).
Next came the quartet of Turning Point (march 1964), with Sun Ra's tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, that
again flirted with free jazz but remained within the boundaries of cool jazz
(notably in Paul Bley's Turns and Carla Bley's Ida Lupino and
The influence of Ornette Coleman was more visible on Barrage (october 1964), entirely composed by Carla Bley (who also manipulated the tapes in studio to produce a thicker sound), for a quintet with Sun Ra's alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, trumpeter Dewey Johnson, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Milford Graves. But the composer was to be credited more than the players with the success of Barrage and Ictus.
Paul Bley came into his own with a trio formed in 1965. Abandoning all previous
influences, the ten short vignettes of Closer (december 1965), mostly composed
by Carla Bley (but Annette Peacock debuted as a composer with Cartoon)
and accompanied by Steve Swallow on bass and Barry Altschul on drums, were
in the spirit of a romantic, lyrical chamber jazz, almost "ambient music" ante-litteram.
Bley continued to record in the trio format (with drummer Barry Altschul and either Kent Carter or Mark Levinson on bass) for a while:
Touching (november 1965), containing Carla Bley's Start and Peacock's Touching;
Ramblin' (july 1966), containing Peacock's lengthy Albert's Love Theme and Touching;
Blood (october 1966), which was mostly a Peacock album (notably Blood and Mr Joy);
Virtuosi (june 1967), the most atmospheric and sophisticated of them all, with Gary Peacock on bass and containing even longer interpretations of two masterful Annette Peacock compositions, Butterflies (16 minutes) and Gary (17 minutes);
Ballads (july 1967), maybe even too baroque in its delicate slow-motion
mood sculpting vein (Peacock's 17-minute Ending and 12-minute So Hard It Hurts).
In 1967 Paul Bley divorced Carla Bley and married another top-notch composer, Annette Peacock.
The combination of Bley's smooth trio sound and Annette Peacock's elegant
melodies coined a new genre, that would make the label ECM rich.
But Bley was ready to move on again.
Annette Peacock became a key member of Bley's new ensemble, playing the most
unusual of instruments, the synthesizer, next to Bley's electric piano.
She was, in fact, one of the very first
musicians to use a synthesizer (which was still a very complex machine) and
probably the first one to take it on a tour. The Synthesizer Show, as their
ensemble was called, recorded several pieces that eventually found their way
to several milestone recordings:
Revenge (november 1969), divided into a side played by the Bley-Peacock-Altschul trio (Mr Joy, Daddy's Boat, Dream) and a side played by Annette Peacock and her new ensemble (not featuring Bley) which marks the beginning of Peacock's solo career, and in which she also does her very first raps (Loss Of Consciousness, Nothing Ever Was Anyway, I'm The One);
Improvisie (march 1971), with Paul Bley on synthesizer, Annette Peacock on vocals and piano, Han Bennink on percussion (which contains two lengthy improvisations, the 16-minute Improvisie and a 24-minute version of Touching);
Dual Unity (march 1971), featuring Paul Bley on synthesizer and piano, Annette Peacock on piano and vocals, Han Bennink on drums and Mario Pavone on double bass (Richter Scale being the most representative and loudest of the four tracks, and the 17-minute MJ being the n-th version of Mr Joy);
and the inferior The Paul Bley Synthesizer Show (march 1971), that does not feature Peacock anymore, but features an all-Peacock program.
But this "synthesizer show" had been mostly Annette Peacock's personal show.
Bley returned to the "ambient" sound he had pioneered during the trio years
with a solo piano album, Open To Love (september 1972), titled yet again
after a Peacock composition (and one of her best).
Most of the material was made of old Carla Bley and Annette Peacock
compositions, but the delivery was now emphasizing the spatial ambience and the
spiritual side of things.
After divorcing Peacock, Bley formed a new trio, Scorpio (november 1972), playing electric and electronic keyboards next to Altschul and double-bassist Dave Holland, and converting to the jazz-rock style in vogue at the time, but in a rather
Bley's erratic career
flirted with free jazz on Quiet Song (november 1974), with guitarist Bill Connors and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre,
returned to the Scorpio sound on Pastorius Metheny Ditmas Bley (june 1974), that marked the recording debut of both guitarist Pat Metheny and bassist Jaco Pastorius,
and occasionally revived his trio
with Peacock and Altschul, for example on the live 33-minute Japan Suite (july 1976).
He seemed more interested in innovating in other formats, particularly the visual one: in 1974 he formed a company with video artist Carol Goss to produce videos in the same improvised manner as the music was produced by free-jazz musicians.
By far his most influential output was in the format of the impressionistic piano piece:
Alone Again (august 1974), finally relying mostly on his own material,
Axis (july 1977), containing his lengthy Axis,
Tears (may 1983),
Tango Palace (may 1983).
Continuing to pursue his vision of baroque chamber jazz music,
Bley formed a quartet with Swallow, Altschul and guitarist John Scofield for Hot (march 1985),
one with Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist John Surman for Fragments (january 1986) and The Paul Bley Quartet (november 1987), the latter containing his 20-minute Interplay,
and yet another one with Surman, Gary Peacock and drummer Tony Oxley for In The Evenings Out There (september 1991),
and even reformed the trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian for Not Two Not One (january 1998) and the live When Will The Blues Leave (march 1999).
Annette (april 1992) featured Bley (piano), Gary Peacock (double bass) and Franz Koglmann (flugelhorn and trumpet) performing Annette Peacock's compositions arranged by Franz Koglmann.
But mostly he continued to explore the piano on intimate recordings such as:
Blues For Red (may 1989),
Changing Hands (february 1991),
Sweet Time (august 1993),
Hands On (march 1993),
Synth Thesis (september 1993), accompanying himself at the synthesizer,
Basics (july 2000),
Solo in Mondsee (april 2001),
Nothing to Declare (may 2003), that (abandoning his favorite "fragment" format) indulged in four lengthy improvisations,
12+6 In a Row (may 1990) collects solos, duets and trios with Koglmann and Hans Koch.
Paul Bley updated the language of Bill Evans to a new generation, even before
that generation was born.
Bremen & Stuttgart 1961 (november 1961) documents the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (clarinet), Paul Bley (piano) and Steve Swallow (double bass).
Bley died in January 2016.
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