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Artist Profiles

Paul Bley: Turning Points

By Published: May 6, 2006
"He's going to try to destroy my playing, I may try to destroy his as well, Kimbrough responds. "In that case, it's going to make us both play very differently. That way the audience and both Paul and I will be hearing something we've never heard before which could be a very good thing. Any player is a product of anything they've played or heard. You're a product of your life and so I think that even as one's playing is being destroyed, as he says, he's not going to make me completely change my playing. I think the idea of the destruction he's talking about is just to make someone realize something that they haven't realized before.

Bley echoes his and Kimbrough's statement: "Why would I want to go to a concert that I've already heard if I've had it set up that it was predictable? I want the same pleasure that the audience has. They're going somewhere to hear something that they have not yet heard. And I want to go to the hall also having not yet heard the concert. And so when you say 'What are we going to do on the gig?', we're going to not have heard the concert, that's the whole premise of the gig. And that's what I like about it, the danger and surprise, two elements that I consider paramount in performance. And though Bley has the status as one of jazz' most recorded musicians, it is in performance where he can focus most intently, where the negative term 'egotistical' becomes a positive. "There are two kinds of 'egotistical'. When you're at a cocktail party or a dinner in somebody's home and 10 people are having dinner, you don't really want to appear to be egotistical and gorilla the conversation. But if you're in a hall with 5,000 people in hard-backed chairs, then you are gorillaing the conversation, because it's expected of you. You may have too much ego for the dinner party but you can't have too much ego for the 5,000 seat hall, the more ego you have the better.

Bley's thoughts on destruction and space and ego make his musical persona even more imposing than his physical one, a fact borne out of over 100 records as a leader and a playing resumé unmatched by any other pianist. But that belies the fact that at almost 75, he is still thinking about jazz as an expanding art and how he can be successful in it. "That's a question that's concerned me from the very beginning because you want to get an overview about the past, the present and the future. How well you gauge the direction that jazz is taking in advance of its taking that direction determines your success in being a participant in that movement. I like to think in terms of driving along a country road. Then there's a crossroads and there's a sign saying you can go to the left, you can go straight ahead, you can go to the right or you can turn around, there's always these choices. It is these choices that have defined Bley's career with Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre and as a leader, from solo piano to duos with heirs like Frank Kimbrough and whatever new crossroads he may come across.

Recommended Listening:

· Paul Bley - Live at the Hillcrest Club (with Ornette Coleman) (America-Inner City, 1958)

· Jimmy Giuffre - Emphasis and Flight (hatOLOGY, 1961)

· Paul Bley - Open to Love (ECM, 1972)

· Paul Bley - Tears (Owl, 1983)

· Paul Bley/Franz Koglmann/Gary Peacock - Annette (hatHUT, 1992)

· Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips - Sankt Gerold (ECM, 1996)

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