Despite its esoteric thrust, this music is suffused with the classic sound of the jazz piano trio. And if anyone knows the format inside and out, it’s these three men. Pianist Paul Bley started out as a bebopper in the 50s, playing trio with Mingus and Art Blakey. A decade later, drummer Paul Motian played a key role in Bill Evans’s reinvention of the trio concept. Later still, bassist Gary Peacock furthered the idiom’s evolution in a long-standing association with Keith Jarrett. So of course a Bley/Peacock/Motian trio is going to be serious stuff.
A free jazz aesthetic prevails on the album. Tempos, harmonies, and forms are for the most part implied and difficult to detect. Yet the music is never cacophonous. Quite the contrary, it possesses a kind of beauty that can only be called traditional. The listener, however, must do without the guideposts of conventional composition and arranging. The sounds you will hear are at once familiar and profoundly mysterious.
Of the tunes, Bley wrote "Fig Foot," "Now," and "Vocal Tracked." The latter two are deliciously contrasting solo piano features, while "Fig Foot" is a blues-inflected work for the full trio. Peacock authored the restless "Intente," the even more restless "Set Up Set," and a jewel of a solo bass piece titled "Entelechy." Bley and Peacock cowrote "Noosphere," "Dialogue Amour," and "Don’t You Know," the three most "normal" tracks on the record. ("Dialogue Amour" is the only cut that features a walking bass line, and even then only for a moment.) All three players composed "Not Zero: In Three Parts," the opener, and "Not Zero: In One Part," the closer. On every track, the boundary between the planned and the spontaneous is quite blurry, prompting curiosity as to how these tunes might look on paper, if they are in fact written down at all. Yet amid all the freedom and abstraction, there’s an order and cohesion that holds this music together, a glue that is entirely specific to this trio.
Bley, Peacock, and Motian are three huge names in jazz, but this is no ordinary jazz supergroup thrown together to sell tickets and records. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform at the Knitting Factory in 1998. I was impressed then, and I’m even more impressed now.