Ten Pianists Reflect on the Enduring Influence of Paul Bley 1932-2016

Ten Pianists Reflect on the Enduring Influence of Paul Bley 1932-2016
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With the recent passing of the pianist Paul Bley, I was intrigued by the many tributes posted on line and in newspapers for this very iconoclastic player who I thought had limited appeal. I had been aware of Bley and have a sampling of his music -both as a sideman and a leader- in my music collection. But to be honest, I never quite got what all the fuss was about? Maybe it is sad or maybe it is fortuitous, but obituraries have a way of leading me to search more closely into a person's life and work.

I dug up a Ben Ratliff interview with the guitarist Pat Metheny from the New York Times in 2005. Metheny recalled how a solo that Mr Bley did in 1963 with Sonny Rollins influenced him greatly. He called the solo "the shot heard 'round the world," That was a pretty strong sentiment from a very gifted guitarist who I respect. I would have never guessed Metheny had such a musical linkage to the pianist Bley. ( You can check out this interview here)
"...the shot heard 'round the world." Pat Metheny

Brief Bio:

I had to study up on this man's life. (Hyman) Paul Bley was a Canadian born in Montreal, Quebec on November 12, 1932. His surname was taken from his adopted father, a Jewish textile merchant who owned an embroidery factory. In the mid to late forties Bley attended McGill Conservatory often playing around Montreal with his trio. For a short time, at the age of seventeen, he replaced Oscar Peterson at the Alberta Lounge. He enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1950 remaining active in the Montreal music scene. In 1952 Bley and other local musicians established the Jazz Workshop, a jazz series held Saturday afternoons at Chez Paree, a leading Montreal nightclub.

According to Chuck Haddix's biography of Charlie Parker- Bird the Life and Music of Charlie Parker -one day,unannounced, Bley decided to show up on Parker's doorstep in NYC. He brazenly invited the saxophone legend to play at the Canadian Jazz Workshop. Surprisingly Parker readily accepted! The young entrepreneurial producer was relieved when the notoriously unreliable Parker actually showed up to play, both at a live Canadian Broadcasting television show and later with Bley's trio at the Jazz Workshop. Jazz in Canada was at its peak at this time.Parker later that year made his famous Massey Hall recording in Toronto with his "Quintet of the Year" that included Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Max Roach on drums. A crackdown on local clubs in Montreal, forced many local musicians to leave for greener pastures. Itching to play with the innovators of this new music, Bley found himself accompanying jazz giants like Lester Young, Ben Webster, Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins. The restless twenty-one year old eventually went to California and met bassist Charles Mingus. Mingus asked the pianist to conduct his Nonet on a recording for Mingus's new record label Debut in 1953. That same year Bley released his own first recording on the Debut label- Introducing Paul Bley with Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums.


Bley moved to California taking a residency at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles. He booked Ornette Coleman's group to the Club in 1958. The iconic "live" performance captured on the recording The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet finds a young Coleman on alto with Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, Billy Higgins on drums and Bley on piano, playing music that would usher in an era of the Shape of Jazz to Come and launch the avant-garde school of jazz.

Bley married his first wife, the pianist and composer Carla Bley in 1957 encouraging her to write music. Her compositions would influence him throughout his career. In 1960 Bley took another turn into free jazz joining the adventurous reed player Jimmy Giuffre, who had just broken up his trio with guitarist Jim Hall. The new Jimmy Giuffre 3 recorded their first of four albums Fusion ,with Giuffre on clarinet and Steve Swallow on bass and Bley on piano. This iteration would last for three years.

In 1963 Bley was a featured sideman in the aforementioned RCA recording of Sonny Rollins with Coleman Hawkins Sonny Meets Hawk. This was a launching point for Bley's career as a leader. In the late sixties Bley was a pioneer performer in the use of electronics. He and his then wife composer /vocalist Annette Peacock performed experimental music using early Moog synthesizers. Bley formed the electric jazz fusion group Scorpio in 1974. It was during this period that he recorded the album unofficially titled Jaco featuring then relative unknowns Pat Metheny on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass with Bruce Ditmas on drums. By the end of 1974 Bley's love affair with electronic instrumentation began to fade.

In the nineteen seventies through the nineteen eighties Bley was involved with Carol Goss (whom he married in 1980) creating IAI ( Improvising Artist Inc)- a company that developed a catalog of progressive music and promoted live performances of avant-garde artists. During this period, Bley performed works on solo piano and also recorded and performed with trio mates bassists Steve Swallow and Gary Peacock and drummer Barry Altschul. In the 1990's the pianist became part of the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music. Bley was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2008. Mr. Bley passed of natural cause on January 3, 2016 at his home in Stuart, Florida.

The Question:

Now that I had a better understanding of the man and his career I decided to listen to Bley's music with a more deliberate intent. I found a feature on jazz.com where the contemporary pianist Aaron Parks was asked to name his twelve favorite Paul Bley recordings (you can check out this article here). Parks cited multiple songs with several memorable solos. I listened intently to every one I could get my hands on. Not surprisingly-Bley's solo on "All the Things You Are" from the 1963 RCA album Sonny Meets Hawk with Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Paul Bley, Bob Cranshaw and Roy McCurdy- was again praised as a benchmark performance.

The Search:

Convinced there must be something there, I listened to this solo over and over and over again trying to grasp the nuances of its apparent evolutionary impact. Frankly, while I thought it was well done, I was still a bit perplexed as to its hallowed significance. The solo was a bit jagged, a little discordant and strayed a bit too far off the changes to my ears. I was at a loss. I must be missing something. How could I better understand the depth of this solo that influenced so many people?

At the risk of revealing my ignorance, I decided to ask the professionals- other pianists that I respect who would be better able to explain the significance. I would pose a question and include a YouTube video of the performance for their convenience. I was excited by the prospect of seeing who would respond and what they would say.

Here is the question I posted to over a dozen pianists :

"With the recent death of pianist Paul Bley I was wondering whether you could shed some light on his playing for me. The NY Times did an interview with guitarist Pat Metheny who lauded Bley's solo on "All the Things You Are" on the Sonny Meets Hawk album from 1963.

I have included a YouTube video of the song with Bley's solo starting at approximately 3:15.I would be interested in what your take is on this solo, what makes it so special (if you agree with Pat) and Bley's work in general."

The musicians are from a cross section of respected pianists and educators, many who I have written about. Some understandably declined, feeling they were not familiar enough with Mr. Bley's music to comment.

Surprisingly one fine player, who begged anonymity, claimed he couldn't stand to listen to Bley's music, characterizing the solo with these words: "Everything is poorly handled, out of proportion with all jazz pianistic elements... ." I was starting to think maybe I wasn't so far off, but soon it became evident his comments were clearly in the minority.

Most responses were thoughtful and laudatory. I am grateful for their studied responses, for their willingness to participate and for their generosity in trying to help me, and perhaps some of you, better understand the impact of this solo and the important and lasting influence of Mr. Bley and his music.

Several pianists suggested the answer lie in a quote from Paul himself found on the liner notes to his album from 1963, the same year as the aforementioned Sonny Meets Hawk ( RCA)- Paul Bley with Gary Peacock (ECM).

"Chord changes had never interfered with my own way of hearing melody. Whether playing standards with steady time and a given set of chord sequences or free rhythm and free harmony pieces where the only guide to the improviser is the vivid character of the given written composition, one's own personality should be apparent to the listener"

"What I love about the All the things you are solo of Paul Bley is, that Paul always focuses on developing a motive. He finds or introduces and follows and varies this motive until he introduces the next motive vs just trying to play lines that express the relationship of the chord progression.

He focuses on these motives but follows the principle of tension and release with his focus on melodic motives rather then just playing lines. Paul has an intuitive way to follow melodies and develop them in a similar way as for example J.S Bach develops motives in his violin sonatas of his cello solo suites.
His approach deeply influenced pianists like Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau, that focus their playing as well on following motivic and melodic ideas even if that means that for longer periods in a solo it means that they are playing outside the changes.

Just as an anecdote: I hired Paul Bley in 1993 to play in my hometown (Whittlich, Germany) with Jimmy Giuffre and it was great to observe this very unconventional and free way to improvise melodic lines over well known standards.

"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.

Not as well known was Bley's effort to help younger musicians. He 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.

Paul Bley's solo on Sonny Rollins' "All The Things You Are", with Coleman Hawkins (Sonny Meets Hawk, RCA) was basically a career - maker for Paul. ...the gig with Sonny Rollins was one of the last he would do as a sideman before devoting himself primarily to his own trios in the mid-sixties.

In this solo, he stretches harmony to the breaking point, something that he began doing even before his work with Ornette Coleman five years before. By the time this solo was recorded, Paul had reached a point of maturity with these ideas, that is, finding "landing spots" harmonically, so that he could play where the harmony was GOING, rather than the chord changes at hand, disregarding, ignoring, or playing THROUGH the changes (to fool the listener) to a point of resolution, where the listener would realize that he actually WAS in the right place in the song. It's all about tension and release, where spontaneous melody takes precedence over the original harmony of the tune. Often, Paul would play against the harmony of a phrase until the last bar or two, at which point he would briefly "land" before "taking off" as the next phrase began.

As iconoclastic as Paul seemed on the surface, many of his improvised compositions were actually based on templates of standards - that is, the basic form of the tune (which could be changed - Paul thought the AABA form contains too many A's, so he often played AABABABA), constantly reharmonized, without any direct reference to the original melody. Bley loved the Great American Songbook, and 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 Paul's sound of surprise

"Paul Bley has long been a hero of mine for reasons that are beautifully illustrated on this particular side. The first thing to be noted, though, is the Space Age solo Hawk takes, showing 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 and Hawk, too, for that matter."

"Bley's solo 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 while playing "All The Things You Are.". I like him and especially this solo because he always take risks, he tries to find troubles and unconventional phrasings even (or especially) when the chord progression is obvious, as in that standard. He seems not to play "All The Things You Are" but "on" "All The Things You Are" and he improvises on that song as a whole .instead of improvising on a fragment or on a specific chord progression. He seems to keep in mind the whole song. In this solo 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 Tyner, Hancock & Taylor as a master of modern/contemporary jazz piano."

Paul Bley, in his early playing (pre; New York), was a clone of Oscar Peterson's.... Lots of fast right hand "cooking" improvised melodies and coordinated left hand chord comping which enforced and supported the right hand.

When I first listened to him in his post NYC phase, I found him more probing harmonically and melodically. He was beginning to create an original style. He recorded profusely and he told me he believed that his legacy lie there, in the recordings. He also felt that recording with different players enhanced his pianistic abilities to fit inside any playing/accompanying situation. Carla Bley also greatly influenced him musically through her compositions. He encouraged her to compose more and more.
Paul always looked forward never backward in his improvising. One can definitely hear where Keith Jarrett was very,very influenced by Bley's improvising and pianistic abilities, in terms of his counterpoint lines.

Paul was truly an original. I am saddened by his passing.

" "All the Things You Are" is a masterful example of Bley weaving melodic constructs that imply shifting tonalities. These tonalities create varying degrees of tension with the original set of chord changes. This ability to pivot between tonal centers and hear them in relation to the fixed harmonies of a standard tune create an amazingly personal and unique melodic vision that realizes his goal of communicating one's personality to the listener. Since many of his ideas are major scale based, this also fits with his thoughts about using the 'vivid character of the written composition.' "All the Things You Are"', in spite it's many chord changes, spends much of it's time outlining only a few major keys."

"It's funny how famous that solo is. That was exactly the song I was going to talk about and exactly the solo. Harmonically it was just flat out some new stuff, an obtuse approach that had never been tried before. You can hear traces of it in Keith Jarrett and many great pianists that followed. I myself am extremely influenced by a few of his solos, "All the Things You Are" in particular. I think it informed my harmony and it still does today."

"I didn't read Pat's specific comments on Paul's solo, but I agree with him that it is special. There is a relaxed intensity throughout, and excellent groove. He is telling a story--commenting on what went before and soon pushing into very new harmonic territory, farther and farther out, but occasionally referencing the basic structure, to make what he is doing pull more deliciously against it. The unusual shapes of his phrases and displacements add greatly to the total experience. And his solo galvanizess Sonny into some of his most unusual and far-out playing.

Paul was pushing the envelope from the start, and always had his own thing, throughout the many decades of his career. I'll always remember how gracious he and Carla were in inviting me to sit in when I was a musically unknown medical student visiting New York in 1963."


After reading their responses it becomes obvious that Mr. Bley's music was a game changer for many. I am sure countless others were radically affected by this solo and by Bley's music in general. He was a trailblazer whose restless spirit led him on an uncompromising path throughout his over fifty years of performing. After he acquired a thorough understanding and mastery of where the music came from, it was his solo on " All the Things You Are" from 1963 that was his way of leading us all into a new direction. As Metheny said so succinctly it truly was "the shot heard 'round the world."

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