In the pantheon of jazz, certain players are spoken of as upholding or continuing a particular lineage while others are given their own chapter in the book - their body of work something for others to uphold and continue. Paul Bley is one of the latter, a pianist who for over 50 years has participated in every stylistic shift present in jazz. But to use the word 'participate' implies being carried along by others' momentum. No one carries Bley along; he chooses carefully where and how and what he plays and the results are as compelling a piano concept as Monk or Evans or Rachmaninov.
But even a musician who has contributed so much to the vocabulary both on piano and in terms of 'space' remains conscious and conscientious. "If I come up with a phrase that sounds like somebody else, I don't play it, he remarks. "There's a tape loop delay in my brain. Prior to playing an idea, if I've heard it in anyone else's playing or in my previous playing, I tend to allow silence to replace the idea that belongs to somebody else or an earlier me. It's all an editing process.
When attending a Paul Bley performance, whether it is a solo recital, a duet or as part of a larger group, Bley's presence is felt. A physically imposing figure, whose once-chiseled good looks have softened into a face at once bemused and intense, his impact is unmistakable. Periods of silence are fraught with tension, and when notes, or even a note, are played, the whole complexion of what has come before changes. "You come to the bandstand and you ask 'What's the problem? Is anybody not functioning properly?' And if everyone's functioning properly, there's no need for you to enter and to play because it already sounds good and you wouldn't want to spoil it. But if after some time you feel that the music could use some assistance, that's when you enter and assist until the music is going well and then you can drop out and save yourself for another time when assistance is needed.
This approach has defined Bley's playing, whether during his formative bebop years or in the periods where jazz was opening up to new concepts. But to have this kind of approach means that traditional roles of leaders and sidemen, as relates to who drives a performance, are detrimental. "For the past 25 years, there have been no leaders and sidemen actually, Bley states unequivocally. "Music has since [Jimmy] Giuffre evolved into counterpoint and equal performances so once you put someone's name on top of the list, you're condemning the music to one- sidedness, lopsidedness. It's more important for everyone to be equals in improvisation... When you listen to a band, it can only sound as good as the worst player in the band. So the job is to make the worst player sound better, not for you to play better because you already can play better. So what needs fixing is the poorest player on the bandstand.
Another facet of this selfless or conversely selfish concept is a willingness to be exploratory in whatever context he finds himself in. Pianist Frank Kimbrough, with whom Bley will be performing in duo this month, took this as Bley's most important feature. "I think it's more of an appreciation for what's possible because he's achieved so many different things in so many different eras, Kimbrough says. "And to look at that as a role model. Now what can I do in the eras that I'm living in? There's the obvious appreciation of his playing, but it goes so far beyond that...I think he's a great example for any musician whether they're a pianist or whether they play any other instrument, just a person who is able to put themselves into different musical situations and remain themselves, to always be themselves and to play with anybody.
Bley, who counts Kimbrough as one of his favorite pianists, approaches performing (and the duo concert should not be any different) from a perspective he finds lacking today. "Attack is my main frame of reference, he muses. "I love attack. It's rare; attack is really rare these days. It used to be normal in the '50s and '60s. Destruction was one of the key tools to improvisation. And if you have duo concerts, the idea is to unseat the other person and to destroy their playing and see how they respond to attack. That keeps the blood flowing and the brain turning and that's one of the things I like about duo playing. But it is an option; it's not the only option. These various personalities are important to me. If the other person is going to just ape what you do, then you're in deep trouble because you'll have heard your playing by listening to them. What you want to do is to shake them up so that even they don't recognize their own playing - I was going to say so that they don't remember their own name but I guess that's maybe too much.