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Paul Bley: Nothing to Declare

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Paul Bley has made records at such a pace that only the most determined of fans can keep up, so it’s usually difficult for a reviewer to describe a new Bley album as a real standout with any confidence. But Nothing to Declare is something else again. The four lengthy solo improvisations heard here rank with the best things the pianist has done in a career that now covers half a century. Bley has always been underrated by many on the scene, particularly among those who think that Bill Evans is the be-all and end-all of modern jazz piano.

Bley and Evans share some estimable qualities, like the willingness to consistently travel to places that leave the musicians exposed. But those who delight in Evans’ lyricism should sample the more acerbic flavors offered by Bley. Unlike Evans, he never comes off as sticky, and he’s a less-predictable improviser. Both are extremely advanced harmonically, but Evans was more concerned with extrapolating adventurous harmonies by building up chords and was less likely to go into polytonality. This last area is one in which Bley’s approach has evolved considerably.

On the title track Bley sustains an amazing improvisation on Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” during which he repeatedly lets his melody go in directions quite removed from the path indicated by the progression. It’s pretty amazing how many new and wonderful places he takes us during this 18-minute tour de force, sustaining interest for the whole ride. Bley remains inspired throughout the program, using essentially the same wide-open approach.

Bley’s fans will love Nothing to Declare, but it should also be heard by anyone who likes to hear a great improviser push himself.