In 1994, ECM brought Canadian pianist Paul Bley, English saxophonist Evan Parker, and American bassist Barre Phillips to Oslo for an experimental recording. It marked the first time that the musicians had played as a trio and the first time that Parker and Bley had ever worked together, although Barre Phillips had plenty of history with both of them. The original idea was to initiate some contemporary improvised chamber music that might draw upon aspects of the free jazz tradition, perhaps picking up some threads Jimmy Giuffre (in his trio with Bley) left dangling after the historically crucial 'Fusion', 'Thesis' and 'Free Fall' albums, music in which 'abstraction' and lyricism could co-exist. The 'Time Will Tell' session, however, quickly went beyond this rough blueprint, as the musicians reflected upon a great deal of shared experience, common goals, uncommon listening, and parallel musical ac-tivities over decades of New Jazz experimentation.
Reactions to 'Time Will Tell' were positive: 'A brilliantly conceived trio' (Down Beat); 'The op-portunity to hear Parker in a setting of such brevity and concision is both rare and rewarding' (Fan-fare); 'Bley's aphoristic style, dealing in ambiguity, seems a quite different part of the free spectrum to Parker's passionate energy. But both have an impulse towards purity...in the end it all works beauti-fully' (Jazz on CD);'A challenging but highly rewarding record' (Time Out); 'An album of both re-fined lyricism and pleasingly literate energy' (Jazz Journal); 'Exquisite rapport...Parker sets aside his customary fierce intensity to accommodate Bley's preference for more spacious soundscapes. A fasci-nating session' (Gramophone); 'Quiet and careful improvisation that grippingly blends orthodox con-struction and abstract playing...As inviting to non free jazz listeners as this kind of chamber free-jazz gets' (The Guardian, Jazz CD of the Week); 'The title track is a near-perfect illustration of the way three senior players with yard-long CVs and utterly distinctive voices are still able to touch base with their own musical upbringing. Parker's Coltrane inflexions are only the most obvious example; Bley and Phillips dig deep into their own memories as well. A superb album, recommendable to any-one.'(Penguin Guide to Jazz).
The musical success of the alliance prompted Bley/Parker/Phillips to take the project to the road and the group has since become a semi-regular touring institution, appearing at jazz festivals and on the club circuit. On one of their first tours together, in 1996, ECM invited them to make an additional concert at the Propstei Sankt Gerold, the monastery in the Austrian mountains that has been the site of many ECM recordings, including discs by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Giya Kancheli, Paul Giger, Anouar Brahem, Eduard Brunner, Michelle Makarski, Barry Guy/Maya Homburger, and others... The concert was duly recorded, and music drawn from it makes up the disc now presented as 'Sankt Gerold'.
In this live performance, intensities are differently calibrated; the trio playing has grown more de-tailed, more intricate, listening-and-reacting is hyper-alert, and where 'Time Will Tell' alternated between duo and trio improvisations, 'Sankt Gerold' also offers a number of exceptional solo fea-tures. These include three Parker solo pieces, two on soprano, using circular breathing and rhythm patterns in characteristically dazzling ways, and a mysterious concluding improvisation on tenor (a horn he uses only rarely for unaccompanied work). Of Bley's two solos, 'Variation 9' , begins with familiar dark rumblings in the bottom register, announcing the imminent arrival of poetic music that connects to the beginning of Bley's story on ECM, and the peerless solo album 'Open, To Love'. 'Variation 6', in sharp-edged contrast, sounds like bebop by way of Schoenberg. Barre Phillips, mas-terful free bassist, delivers a beautiful arco solo and a long pizzicato feature, which moves from guitar-like fingering to expressive, percussive attack.
In the five years that have passed since 'Time Will Tell' all three musicians have surfaced in other contexts on ECM. Barre Phillips is, at the time of writing, on the road with Joe and Mat Maneri, taking further the music begun on another production project, 'Tales of Rohnlief'. Evan Parker has issued two albums with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, 'Toward The Margins' and 'Drawn Inward' and produced a third, Kenny Wheeler's 'A Long Time Ago'. Paul Bley surprised many with the recon-vening of his innovative 1960s trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, whose 'Not Two, Not One' was their first collaborative recording in 35 years.
'Sankt Gerold' bears out an observation made by Jon Balleras in Down Beat a decade ago: 'Bley has the wonderful ability to allow his music to move where it will. The effect is one of total freshness, of music that has never been heard before and never will be heard again.' Or as Bley himself puts it: 'For me, the only obsession is changing the music.'