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Paul Bley: Zen Comedy

Pianist Paul Bley might be called a jazz legend who has long been semi-hiding in plain sight. The Montreal-born musician, a master of loaded lyricism, space and expressive freedom, has been present at numerous critical junctures in jazz history, having played with Charlie Parker, hired a young Ornette Coleman at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles, worked with Sonny Rollins, and hosted the first recording of Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. Over the past 50 years, he has exerted more influence on jazz and contemporary music, generally, than he’s given credit for.

Now 75, Bley continues in earnest, at his own pace and on his own terms, as usual. For a musician who has professed a high priority on the improvisational moment, going back to the earliest days of free jazz, circular waves of history keep intersecting with his flow these days. In August, for instance, Bley had a stint at Birdland in an impressively abstract-cum-visceral trio with old friends and empathetic allies, drummer Paul Motian and bassist Gary Peacock. That trio, which recorded an album for ECM in 1999, goes back to the late ’60s, before both Motian and Peacock ended up in long associations with pianist Keith Jarrett.

This season’s main Bley release is Solo in Mondsee, a ruminative improvisational project recorded back in 2001 and finally released upon the world. The Mondsee recording was significant as the first ECM solo piano album for Bley since his memorable Open, to Love in 1972. Bley’s Mondsee, Austria session, recorded on a prize Boesendorfer piano, may have represented a return to the solo format, but he subsequently had another solo session in New York in 2003, released as Nothing to Declare, on Justin Time, in 2004.

Nothing to Declare is a loaded title, having to do with the vicissitudes of travel and also a certain philosophy relevant to Bley’s music: He has nothing to declare, but plenty to say, and does so in a quiet, deceptively cool yet determined way.

On the phone from his home in a quiet small town in upstate New York, Bley was in one of his impish moods, often making puns and jokes and rolling into his laugh. He cut the image of a lighthearted jokester, something between a koan-happy Zen monk and a rim-shot-ready Catskills comedian. So much for the impression of Paul Bley as a somber, cerebral character with his head in the clouds.

Speaking of the close conversational ease of his trio with Motian and Peacock, Bley retorts, “Yeah, we’re joined at the hip, which is why they call us hip.” Asked if he has any of any of the vintage electronic equipment he has used previously in musical experiments, he says, “No. I don’t own any equipment. It takes up space. My wife says I take up space, too.” Ba da boom.

As for the Mondsee project, Bley says, “It all started with Manfred.” ECM head Manfred Eicher had been recording classical piano great Andras Schiff and other pianists in Mondsee when he got the idea of luring Bley back into solo piano mode. “I hadn’t done it for a long time,” Bley notes. “I said to Manfred, ‘I’m not sure I can. Let me call you back when I find out.’ I was having a quintet rehearsal with a bunch of really avant-garde players [including saxist Evan Parker]. I was demonstrating the written material and I kept playing after the written material was over. I found that it was two-thirds easier than I thought.”

A couple of differences between Open, to Love and Solo in Mondsee are rooted in the material and the methodology. On his first ECM solo date, Bley drew on originals and compositions by Carla Bley (his former wife) and also Annette Peacock, whose songbook the pianist has often dipped into over the years. In terms of preparing for the Mondsee sessions, Bley shirks the p-word. “I never prepare for a date. That’s cheating. And it’s also anxious. After all this time, should I still be anxious?”

Playing free jazz, albeit with his intuitive subtlety and sense of a lyrical phrase, runs deep in Bley’s life. “There has always been a great advantage in free playing,” he says, “having arrived early on the scene and enjoying the liberties that come with that philosophy. Having started even before it was well known, in terms of playing with groups and so forth, free was the only way to play. You had all the old options plus the new options, so it was a real plus.

“It’s been getting easier. As a matter of fact, I won’t accept any activity that I consider difficult. Now, if you did that on the job, you might get fired. In my case, they honor me.”

Alongside more imponderable factors, geography and setting play a role in Bley’s improvisational concept. “You do try and play the geography of the situation,” he says. “That’s sitting right in front of your face, so you want to go with it, whatever that implies. Usually, that means the stereotypical meanings of the geography, but you’ll take anything you can get if you’re playing solo.

“If you’re playing a cathedral in Spain and the girls, at 7 in the evening before the concert, are on the lawn with castanets, dancing and singing, you’re in Spain. What are you going to play, ‘St. Louis Blues’? Each place has its stereotyped implications and you go with that if it’s there. That’s the nice thing about traveling.”

Was there something about the ambience in Austria that colored his musical ideas? “Well, you’re at the top of the world looking down. Is that Germanic enough for you?” he says with a chuckle.

Bley’s Web site sports a wealth of information on his musical life and his vast discography, including titles from his own respected label from the ’70s, IAI (Improvising Artists Inc.), before artist-run labels were commonplace. Also on the site is a list of aphorisms and random thoughts, including this one: “Music paper is senile. Recordings do a better job.”

Is recording an ideal way to keep music from drifting into the ether?

“Right,” he comments, “and also, you get to be very prolific, because every time you play, it’s another composition, as opposed to pen and paper. Forget it. One can be prolific without trying.” He pauses, then adds, “Without Trying is, I think, going to be the next album title.”

By this point, Bley’s music often speaks for itself, and he resists attempts at self-analysis, sufficing to describe his playing thusly: “After a while, you can only play yourself.” Bley has been ahead of the curve many times over his career, but he likes to clarify that notion, only partly in jest (we assume): “No, they’ve been a little behind the curve. I’ve always been right on the curve. I am the curve.”

Originally Published