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VIEW FROM THE INSIDE: The Influence of Paul Bley

By Randy Freedman

During an interview that Ben Ratliff, music critic, for the New York Times conducted with guitarist Pat Metheny in 2005 , Metheny recalled how a solo that pianist Paul Bley (pronounced “blay”) did in 1963 on the song “All the Things You Are” from the RCA albm Sonny Meets Hawk (featuring saxophonist Sonny Rollins, saxoponist Coleman Hawkins, pianist Paul Bley, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Roy McCurdy) influenced him greatly. He called the solo “the shot heard ‘round the world,” I thought that was a surprisingly strong sentiment. Neither RatIiff or I would have ever guessed ,that the guitarist Metheny had such a strong, close, personal musical linkage to the pianist Bley. But, after some reflection, I thought that the ability to impress and influence other musicians ,even those who play an entirely diffferent instument, is one of the tell tale hallmarks of musical greatness. And that certainly applies to Paul Bley.

Bley was born in Montreal, Quebec, on November 10, 1932. and lived to age 83. His adoptive parents were Betty Marcovitch, an immigrant from Romania, and Joe Bley, owner of an embroidery factory.

An original and uncompromising pianist who began his career playing bebop, Bley eventually became a major force in experimental jazz. Bley’s style of playing was melodic, measured, bluesy, often polytonal and seemingly effortless. He took as long as he needed to finish a thought, and at the tempo he chose for it. He loved standards but distrusted the strictures of the 32-bar song form, and especially distrusted repetition. His notes could move slowly without telegraphing their destination, drawling down into nothing or cohering into bright, purposefully gapped lines, with backing chords that kept changing the tonal center. Bley developed an influential language of phrasing and harmony that others would utilize. Pianists Keith Jarrett and Ethan iverson were two of its many beneficiaries, along with other, not as well known younger musicians.

One of them was pianist Eric Copeland, who recalls to the Washington Post that, "Bley would sometimes take a younger pianist whose work he liked (and this includes me) to breakfast at 3 a.m., and explain how he dealt with the business side of the music. In my case, at least, I can vouch for the fact that Bley’s coaching session could be kind of life-changing."

Copeland also credits Bley with helping to pioneer a fundamental development in the evolution of jazz. "A big change in harmonic usage in jazz occurred in the early 1960’s when a handful of musicians, some of them on piano, started bringing the use of polytonality into the music, not as an occasional garnish or an arranging tool, but as an integral, structural part of the music’s improvisational sound. Paul Bley, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett were some of the best-known pianists involved in this movement; Bley may well have been the first"

Another was pianist Frank Kimbrough who told that he thought that Bley "loved the Great American Songbook. His most frequent references were 'I Can’t Get Started', 'Isn’t It Romantic?', 'Lover Man', 'All The Things You Are', and 'Don’t Explain' - there are many examples in his discography, and he gives hints with his titles - 'Started', 'It Isn’t', 'Lovers', are the most obvious examples of titles listed above, and there are many other examples with less obvious hints. That’s part of the joy of listening to Paul Bley. You never know where his improvisations are coming from, but sometimes things sound awfully familiar, and figuring that out is part of the surprise."

Bley"stretched harmony to the breaking point", thought Kimbrough and and "that was something that he began doing early in his career. By the time Paul had reached a point of maturity with these ideas, he found 'landing spots' harmonically, so that he could anticipate where the harmony was GOING, rather than the chord changes at hand, disregarding, ignoring, or playing THROUGH the changes"


Another pianist who was influenced by Bley was Pete Malinverni who said to"Paul Bley has long been a hero of mine for reasons that are beautifully illustrated " by his work on the aforementioned" Sunny Meets Hawk" album which Malinverni thought screamed...

"that nothing but original thought will work here, that poseurs need not apply. Paul’s solo is startling, in that, if heard on a simplistic level, it may seem 'out'. But, what I hear is someone who respects and ‘plays with’ the harmonic framework of the tune while making phrasing and dynamics choices that set him apart. It’s that combination of fearless exploration rooted in tradition that first attracted me to Paul’s playing ,and that of Sonny Meats Hawk, too, for that matter.”

Last month ,I was privileged to review the album World Garden by the outstanding Italian pianst Roberto Magris who also has some interesting thoughts on the subject that he shared with "Bley is amazing to me because I can immediately recognize that it’s Paul Bley...and there are not so many pianists that you can immediately recognize ... I like him... because he always takes risks, he tries to find troubles and unconventional phrasings even (or especially) when the chord progression is obvious"

 On standards ,he seems not to play the standard as much as play "on that song as a whole, instead of improvise on a fragment or on a specific chord progression. He seems to keep in mind the whole song. In this solo (from Sonny Meets Hawk) I can hear several of his favorite patterns and it’s quite paradigmatic for his style. I’d like to point out that he has no influences from Tyner/Hancock/Evans in his playing, but he comes from bebop straight to the avant-garde. His approach is much more advanced than Hawk (of course) and Sonny and since he plays freely and (does) not follow exactly the chord progression. He’s at the most within the tonality (as Ornette?). It’s a great solo by a great musician who stands out together with Tyner, Hancock & Taylor as masters of modern/contemporary jazz piano.”

Yet, another important contributor to jazz history that was heavily influenced by Paul Bley was his exwiife Carla Bley (Lovella May Borg). She is an America jazz composer, pianist, organist and bandleader and an important figure in the free jazz movement of the 1960s. Carla Bley is perhaps best known for her jazz opera Escalator Over The Hill as well as a book of compositions that have been performed by many artists, including her ex-husband Paul.

Wikipedia says that she moved to New York at 17, lying about her age to get a cabaret card, and work as a cigarette girl at Birdland. There she first met Paul, along,with Count Basie, Ornette Coleman and many other Jazz Greats. "I got to hear everybody and I didn't have to pay.  I didn't sell any cigarettes. I just stood there, and if anyone wanted to buy one, 'I'd say wait until the music is finished."

Carla met and married Paul who encouraged her to compose. They moved to Los Angeles where Paul led a group with free jazz renegades that included Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, and bassist Charlie Hayden. Carla and Hayden later launched his Liberation Music Orchestra ,which she has continued after his 2014 death, along with her own trio.

"My trio is me and (saxophonist ) Andy Sheppard and (bassist) Steve Swallow. When I write for the trio, it's really big-band music reduced," she says. "I want to work with the big band but I can't afford to do that anymore. I have to play way over my head and so do the guys. They have to take on a lot more than they would have to if I still had a big band."

The Liberation Music Orchestra is the only group Bley is working with besides her own trio. She knew Haden for years in New York City before the first Liberation Music Orchestra record was recorded in 1969, and has played on and arranged for every record by that group.

"I had known Charlie because he was playing in Paul Bley's band. We had the same taste in music and had a lot to talk about, and we became friends. Paul Bley sort of collected bass players, so I got to meet a lot. But Charlie was my favorite."

In astronomy, a small planet is sometimes first discovered, not by being seen directly, but by the influence of its gravity on the orbit of another more visible object. Bley has influenced all the musicians that I have discussed both positively and dramatically with his music. He will be long remembered by other musicians and knowledgeable jazz fans everywhere for his originally, daring, and innovation. 

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

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