Canadians know Glenn Gould. And Oscar Peterson. But Paul Bley could be the most important pianist we’ve ever produced.
The late jazz musician, Montreal-born and bred, would have turned 90 on Nov. 10. Yet, from coast to coast to coast, the day will likely come and go without a mention of his art.
Maybe this is the moment to take a closer look.
At his death, in January, 2016, Bley was widely hailed abroad as one of the most influential pianists in jazz history – and, despite a stiff argument from Gould’s and Peterson’s constituents, perhaps the greatest Canadian to ever play the instrument.
That’s debatable, of course. But far-fetched? Hardly. If a true test of artistic greatness is influence, Bley’s importance in jazz circles is incontestable. Take your pick: Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Bad Plus co-founder Ethan Iverson – often, it only takes a moment to hear bits (or oceans) of Bley in their music.
Count Canadian jazz pianist Kris Davis, one of the most critically admired improvisers working today, as part of that group, too. “Paul, overall?” Davis asks, considers his impact, then names a handful of his masterworks, including Touching, Footloose! and Open, to Love. “Those records influenced a whole generation – certainly my generation.” And those albums came out long before the Calgary-raised, Boston-based musician was born.
Over roughly a decade, beginning in the early sixties, Bley re-imagined the piano’s role in improvised music – alone, in trios, and in groups led by clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. These were the first, fertile days of “the new thing,” jazz’s avant-garde.
Still, his renown rarely stretched beyond musicians and the cognoscenti. Gould and Peterson are national treasures; everyone knows they matter.
“He matters partly for the ways in which he doesn’t get through,” says Ben Ratliff, a professor at New York University and the author of four essential books on modern music including Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty.
Gould and Peterson count, in part, because they “got through so widely,” Ratliff says. Gould had immense gifts, and he had a huge platform: Columbia Records. Peterson was so “obviously virtuosic – anybody could tell,” Ratliff observes. “He could make really coherent records just like falling off a log.”
Bley, however, is an inversion of that. “He wasn’t clear. He wasn’t popular. He wasn’t catchy,” says Ratliff. “When you went to see him, he wasn’t going to deliver his signature sound. You never knew what the hell was going to happen.”
“What’s next?” had been Bley’s credo since he was a teenager playing bebop in the forties. When he encountered saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry, in Los Angeles in 1958, he knew – in real time – that he’d found the future. In hiring Coleman and Cherry, he saw first-hand how deeply unpopular this new music – soon to be called “free jazz” – could be.
“How does that joke go: How will you know the next movement in jazz when you first hear it?” Bley said many years later. “You will know it because you won’t like it!”
Coleman upended the standard 32-bar AABA song form. (“Ornette was going straight from A to Z, and nobody knew what hit them,” Bley said). Coleman explored microtonality, the tiniest spaces between notes – daunting terrain on a piano, the cornerstone of an equal-tempered system. When Coleman’s own quartet began to record, it didn’t include a pianist. Bley now faced obsolescence.
So he set out to find a space for himself – and his instrument. He was the first to bring Coleman’s innovations to the piano. He reconfigured time, phrasing notes as he wished, even if they leapt past bar lines. He performed (and championed) the radical compositions of Carla Bley, his first wife, and Annette Peacock, his second. He acquired an early Moog synthesizer and experimented in electric music. Soon, he returned to acoustic piano and spearheaded Improvising Artists, an independent label. At his death, he’d appeared on more than 100 recordings.
Bley left Canada for the United States in the early fifties, and never came back. He had a fitful relationship to us after that. But he never took American citizenship. It was a complicated path. That’s something we discover in his art.
Greg Buium is a journalist based in Vancouver. He is writing a biography of Paul Bley.
Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961 (ECM)
This singular, short-lived trio is still proof that cutting-edge creative music doesn’t need to scream. Or include drums. Clarinettist Jimmy Giuffre, with Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, strove to create a new kind of chamber trio – with skeletal song forms and shifting ways of tackling abstraction, counterpoint and mood. “The way the three of them improvise and compose in real time is something that I’ve been searching for and try to do in my own music,” jazz pianist Kris Davis says. “They’re able to improvise and make it sound composed.”
Paul Bley Trio, Footloose! (Savoy)
Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett famously said this album is one he’s “listened to a thousand times.” Recorded with Swallow and drummer Pete La Roca 60 years ago in Newark, N.J., Footloose! still rattles our expectations. For music critic Ben Ratliff, it is emblematic: “It’s the open, flowing sort of folky quality that then morphs into the Bley phrasing of ‘I’m not going to pay attention to the tempo any more.’ ”
Sonny Rollins, Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA Victor)
Two tenor saxophones – Sonny Rollins and his childhood idol, Coleman Hawkins – command this much-loved (and much-debated) 1963 session. In Ratliff’s book The Jazz Ear, guitarist Pat Metheny called Bley’s solo on All the Things You Are, “the shot heard ‘round the world” in how it affected improvisers: “It just feels like, ‘why didn’t anybody else do that before?’ ” Metheny said.
Paul Bley, Open, to Love (ECM)
Open, to Love sits alongside Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations and Oscar Peterson’s Night Train as an enduring masterpiece of Canadian art. In 1972, Bley accepted producer Manfred Eicher’s invitation: to come to Oslo to make his first solo-piano recording. There, he envisioned a new acoustic music – extremely slow tempos and space and the kind of sustain he’d recently experimented with electronically. The result? Sharp, jarring juxtapositions – passages that might be austere, then plush; emotionally raw, then out of reach. After half a century, it remains something extraordinarily beautiful.