Here themes are no longer mere ‘themes’; the gap between the premeditated and the improvised has never been smaller, and the listener is forced to ask himself whether his presence here is an act of indiscretion or of privilege; which ultimately comes down to the same thing, for here he finds himself side by side with the highly skilled prospector in the systematic yet random search for an entirely new language—each new strike reveals fragments of precious stones whose brilliance and richness are not always immediately obvious to the untrained eye. After finding dust, the occasional vein is struck, followed by a whole layer of resonant brilliance. Everything is accomplished in a single stroke of the artist, who, fashioning and sculpting sounds out of thin air, evokes the solitary and silent craftsmanship of the revered hermits and prophets of the keyboard.
Throughout his career, his approach to playing and recording has remained uncompromising. If his debut recording, with Mingus and Art Blakey, was a baptism of fire, he showed no sign of evading subsequent melting pots. In 1958, he led a quartet with Mr Haden and the vibist, Dave Pike; when Pike left, he was replaced by Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. And, in 1964, Mr Bley was involved in the ‘October Revolution’ of so-called avant-garde jazz. With notable exceptions when he worked with Mingus (1959), George Russell (1960) and Sonny Rollins (1963-4), trios and duos have dominated Mr Bley’s working practices, the exceptionally musical threesome with Jimmy Giuffre demonstrating that not all need be conventionally composed. It was during this period that he finally abandoned the practice of playing chord-related improvisations, concentrating instead on a half-step chromaticism, laced by cross-rhythms that was gradually distilled into the fragmented lyricism now familiar.
‘Monk’s Dream’ is a reminder that its composer’s unconventional approach to phrasing was a principal influence on Mr Bley’s post-Coleman development. It has an exceptional example of Mr Haden’s jogging bass, while the abrupt reappearance of the theme in a reprise hints at the impish sense of humour of both composer and pianist. ‘Dark Victory’ is a poignant ballad in which rippling piano figures grow from skittering percussion ones, and vice versa, paced by Mr Haden’s dry lyricism. As often in a Paul Bley album, Ornette Coleman’s vastly influential repertoire is represented, this time by ‘Latin Genetics’, an etiolated calypso of uncommon poignancy. ‘This Is the Hour’ revisits a familiar hymnal, but the emotions are expressed somewhat more drily. ‘Insanity’ sounds like one of those titles that Ornette Coleman might have penned. In fact, it is Mr Bley’s Glass Enclosure, a complex of unconventional musical patterns in which tempo is implied as rhythms and meters float, suspended over an acrostic of bass, drum and cymbal accents.
Paul Bley’s first recording with Mingus was already marked by his declared wish to break with convention and set out in search of the new, and since then he has crossed paths with all the most significant bass players of the different eras he has been through: Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, Mark Levinson, Dave Holland, Niels-Hennig Orsted-Pedersen, etc. So his lasting partnership with Gary Peacock is doubly meaningful: firstly, in terms of the recent history of the instrument and its association with keyboards, as well as the individual roles which these links have both given rise to and liberated; secondly, in terms of the closeness of the two musicians and of the line of thought and imagination which they share. They have reached the point at which time stands still. Simply declaring your intention of breaking with the establishment doesn’t make you the author of a poetic act. You might have all the required technique and more besides, you may know all there is to know about your instrument and about spontaneous composition, you may well be a true professional at heart, but all that does not necessarily make a musician of you.
With a duo improvising nothing slips by unnoticed. Either you strike the magic chord of a type of lovers’ empathy where you can anticipate your partner’s every intention, answering questions before they have even been asked, or else you run the risk of sinking into clichés and contrived chit-chat. Worst of all, of course, is the moment when rivalry, clashing egos and vulgar noise change a flowing dialogue into an idiotic exchange; clearly neither partner in this duo runs any of these risks, since their life’s work has been unconsciously devoted to making such risks impossible.
Stripping the harmonics from the melody, improvising upon a fragment, the pianist reverses the figure and ground of silence and sound.
Tightly pedalled chords and sparse right-hand figures stretch a tightrope between silence and sound: Constantly restoring his shifting balance, the pianist walks the wire.