“Basically, the body of music that exists is like a river meeting a dam – constantly accumulating. Finally it will break through.... The music is inevitable, and it cannot stand still; it never has been able to stand still. It will change, and it will flow, but the seeds of the solution always exist in the music itself.”
Paul Bley in Down Beat, in 1964
Released in time for Paul Bley’s 75th birthday this autumn, “Solo in Mondsee” is the first Bley solo piano album on ECM in 35 years, and may be considered a very belated ‘sequel’ to 1972’s “Open, To Love”. In the interim the Canadian-born pianist has been acknowledged as one of the very great solo improvisers, documenting his unaccompanied playing at many addresses - including his own Improvising Artists Inc (IAI) - and has been featured on ECM with many other projects and ensembles. It was, however, producer Manfred Eicher who first prompted Bley to take the solo route. Bley talks about this in the new book “Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM” (Granta, London, 2007):
“When Manfred called to ask ‘Do you want to make a solo album?’ the idea had never occurred to me. That’s how early it was. The call from ECM coincided with a period when I was trying to be the slowest pianist in the world, which in turn was connected to the work I had just finished with my electronic period: One of the things I liked in electronics was the possibility of long sustains. I demanded, on going back to acoustic music, that the piano itself should be able to duplicate what I’d been able to get electronically.” This was, to large extent, achieved on “Open, To Love”, an album that looked at space, silence and slow tempos, and emphasized the singing interplay of overtones in the decay of struck chords in a way that still seems radical more than three decades later. If an ‘ECM aesthetic’ can be said to exist, that album of slow songs, ‘with raindrops in the right hand’ (as Manfred Eicher once said), provided one of the early blueprints.
That was then. The idea of a new Bley solo album had been raised during sessions for “Not Two, Not One”, the album Paul made with old cohorts Gary Peacock and Paul Motian in a revival of the 1960s Bley Trio: the same line-up that had played on (most of) “Paul Bley with Gary Peacock” (ECM 1003). “Not Two, Not One” recorded at New York’s Avatar in 1998 had been the first of Bley’s ECM discs to feature him on a Bösendorfer piano.
A little later that year, Manfred Eicher recorded András Schiff playing Schubert fantasies on a superb Bösendorfer Imperial Grand in Mondsee, Austria (see ECM New Series 1699), and decided to invite Bley to the same location. It seemed a logical continuation: first the great interpreter, and then the master improviser.
Bley introduces his recital with a thunderclap, striking the bass end of the piano’s harp of strings. Ten pieces of jewelled brilliance follow, with a remarkable turnover of ideas: each of these ‘Mondsee Variations’ is packed with musical surprises, and unexpected changes of direction. “Bley is a genius”, Nat Hentoff wrote in the Village Voice. “There are few pianists in any form of music who so intriguingly interweave the surprises of both beauty and the intellect.” Kaleidoscopically-splintered melodies, distant memories of standards, abstractions of the blues and spontaneous free playing are some of the subjects of these ever-changing tracks which repay repeated listening.
“In the final reckoning, the pianist Paul Bley’s influence over the last 50 years of jazz - and it continues - will be enormous.... Mr. Bley’s music runs on a mixture of deep historical knowledge and its own inviolable principles."
Ben Ratliff, New York Times
Paul Bley (born in Montreal 1932) is one of the most influential pianists in the entire history of jazz. While still in his twenties, he played with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Chet Baker, and many others. At 21, he made his first album as a leader for Charles Mingus’s Debut label, with Mingus himself on bass and Art Blakey on drums.
Briefly based in California in the late 1950s, his quintet of 1958 helped introduce the talents of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins to the jazz world. In the early 1960s, as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio and in his own groups, Bley brought chamber music clarity into the new domain of free jazz.
In New York, he was a founder member of the Jazz Composers Guild, from which the Jazz Composers Orchestra would subsequently evolve.
Bley was amongst the first artists to appear on ECM when Manfred Eicher acquired the tapes that became “Paul Bley with Gary Peacock” (recorded 1964 and 1968) and “Ballads” (recorded 1967) – those were issued as ECM 1003 and ECM 1010. In 1972 Eicher recorded Bley solo on the enduring classic “Open, To Love” (ECM 1023).
Through the 1970s Bley devoted most of his energies to his own label IAI whose albums included the first-ever recordings of Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius (as members of Paul’s quartet). In the 1980s he returned to ECM and toured the world with a new quartet with Bill Frisell, John Surman and Paul Motian (as heard on “Fragments” and “The Paul Bley Quartet”, ECM 1320 and 1365). This led to two further discs with Surman in 1991: “Adventure Playground” and “In The Evenings Out There” (ECM 1463 and 1488). In 1994 a new trio was formed with Evan Parker and Barre Phillips (recordings “Time Will Tell” and “Sankt Gerold”, ECM 1537 and 1609), and the classic Bley Trio of the 1960s – with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian – was reunited for “Not Two, Not One” in 1998 (ECM 1670). Other ECM appearances include Alfred Harth’s “This Earth!” (ECM 1264) with Barre Phillips, Trilok Gurtu and Maggie Micols, and the crucially important Jimmy Giuffre 3 album “1961” (ECM 1438/39).
In 2001, The National Library of Canada purchased Bley’s vast archive of tapes and documents, and established the Paul Bley Fonds, an important historical resource for jazz scholars.