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Matthew Shipp Remembers Paul Bley

11.10.32 – 1.3.16

Paul Bley
Paul Bley

Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.

Paul Bley had no mental limits and no locks in his subconscious mind. He was comfortable being himself in any context. That’s what was so inspiring and empowering about him: He was always organic, whatever that means to you. If organic means that you’re not stylized and there might be some imperfections that seep in, that’s what gives the music its beauty and grace and charm. That’s what he exemplified.

Paul was an extremely unique figure in jazz history, and an extremely naturalistic improviser. When I think of a naturalistic improviser I think of Lester Young, and Paul Bley had a similar thing, where even though he was studied his music doesn’t sound studied. He also went in and out of so many different periods, whether a post-Mingus thing or Third Stream or Ornette. You couldn’t pigeonhole him. He networked and dealt with so many different musicians. His open-ended mindset held him back commercially, but I don’t think he really cared. He just kept doing his thing and stayed true to himself, from the beginning to the end.

He embodied an approach [in which] every time you sit down at the instrument you’re starting from scratch, in a good way. It’s as Zen an approach to improvisation as I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how he came to it so strongly and so naturally, but whatever he was playing-and it could be a standard or something freeform-he always seemed to bring a beginner’s mind to it: Here I am, in the now, and it doesn’t matter who I’m playing with. The important thing was that whatever music was unfolding right then. That’s so rare in jazz. He seemed to always approach music without any preconceptions. If considering yourself an avant-garde player is a preconception, he even seemed to get rid of that one.

He didn’t believe in practicing, which was interesting, but he was a virtuoso pianist at a very young age. [He said,] I don’t practice anymore because every instrument has a very different personality, so I’m not preparing myself to confront the instrument I will meet in this concert hall. When you listen to different albums of his, on different instruments, in different studios and concert halls, there are times when he generates a completely different personality. He had that talent of going to a different piano and quickly figuring out what that instrument can do and what the personality of that instrument is.

Paul Bley didn’t have a home. He had a roving mind. It was never about free jazz, or even trying to find freedom within bebop; it was about being Paul Bley-whatever it meant to be Paul Bley, in whatever context, whether it was playing with John Gilmore on an ESP-Disk’ album or picking up the synthesizer or playing with the Jimmy Giuffre 3. He offers the modern pianist a model that doesn’t have a genre-specific thing to it: It’s just improvisational music at a very high level.

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