While pianist Paul Bley is renowned as a free player with an almost allergic aversion to music on the printed page, that doesn't mean that he doesn't have roots, or is afraid to show them. On Nothing to Declare , his fifth solo recording for the Canadian Justin Time label, his background in blues and standards is in deep evidence even as he takes these influences and twists them back and forth, up and down, until they manage to be recognizable yet completely him. Bold yet completely accessible, this is a recording that stands in sharp contrast to more outer-reaching recordings including his ECM recordings with Evan Parker and Barre Phillips. Yet for all its lyrical bent, Nothing to Declare is no less artistically pure. Bley has never been known as one to compromise, and he isn't about to start now.
Bley's spontaneous improvisational style was inarguably a strong influence on Keith Jarrett in his formative years. But whereas Jarrett's solo excursions have often been inspired but occasionally meandering, Bley is sharply focused, with a sense of economy and attention that makes for absolutely no waste. He has the ability to create harmonic and/or rhythmic motifs with as simple an inspiration as a standard like "All the Things You Are," the foundation of the eighteen-minute title track. Periodically reiterating a simple but insistent rhythmic figure before heading off again into more impressionistic territory, Bley creates an homage that is all the more meaningful for its refusal to be constricted by the simple bounds of the source.
The three other pieces on Nothing to Declare demonstrate Bley's roots in the blues. While nothing resembling a standard blues form ever emerges, at least for long, Bley's heartfelt "Blues Waltz," "Breakdown," and "8th Avenue," which loosely references Fats Waller's "Black and Blue," all point to an artist for whom the blues has had significant meaning in his life and work.
For an artist who has over seventy recordings as a leader, and countless others as a guest, each recording by Bley manages to be a new experience, shedding light on an artist who, even in his eighth decade, is as fresh and revealing as he ever was. For those who think that purely improvised solo piano recitals start and finish with Keith Jarrett, Nothing to Declare offers firm evidence that one of Jarrett's primary influences is still hard at work, creating adventurous music that continues to define both the terms "in the moment" and "spontaneous composition."
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