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Bob James and Paul Bley: Early Free Piano Trios on ESP-Disk

Clifford Allen By

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Though ESP-Disk is mostly thought of as a label that proffers free music as a saxophonist-led revolution— with numerous discs by figures like Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, Marion Brown and Giuseppi Logan—the piano's place in their early catalog is certainly notable.

Among the early releases are a solo date from Ran Blake, trio and quintet performances by Paul Bley, and two fantastic trio dates each from Lowell Davidson and Bob James. March 2008 sees the reissue of James' Explosions and Bley's Closer from the original master tapes.

Bob James Trio
Explosions
ESP-Disk
2008

Bob James is more known for his break-filled fusion sides for Tappan Zee and Columbia and his production for CTI than as a curious figure in the avant-garde jazz milieu of the 1960s. In fact, his two dates as a leader from this period have pretty much slipped under the radar. His first, Bold Conceptions (Mercury, 1962) was produced under the aegis of Quincy Jones upon the trio's winning of the Collegiate Jazz Festival. Featuring drummer Bob Pozar and bassist Ron Brooks, it combined post-Bill Evans textures with a hefty dose of shifting meters, plucked and prepared piano strings, magnetic tape, chance operations and unconventional sounds.

Explosions, recorded in 1965 in New York with Barre Phillips replacing Brooks on bass, jumps with both feet into the electro-acoustic improvisation field, with significant assistance from Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma of Sonic Arts Union. Their contributions are especially notable in a version of Ashley's multi-channel tape composition "Wolfman" and Mumma's assault on Barre Phillips' "Anon" (here titled "And On").

James more than acquits himself as a free player, coaxing dense clusters at both the high and low end, beginning "Peasant Boy" in glassy arpeggios that mate with the fluid, all-over lines of Phillips and Pozar. Affinity for Ran Blake and Don Friedman enter into James' approach to a sparse canvas, at once plaintive and rustling both at the keyboard and in the "guts," in conversation with knitting needles and high bass harmonics. It's not clear whether the tape manipulations were added to the first track in real time, but they flesh out the shadowy, lower-register group improvisation as it reaches a brief crescendo.

A comparison might be made to Burton Greene (a Moog and piano-string jazz pioneer), but unlike his emotionalism and folksy melodies, the Bob James Trio seems more academic in its investigations, with deliberateness in the combinations of sounds. That's not a slight—rare indeed is a successful pairing of electronic and acoustic audio collage, much less in a mid-1960s jazz setting. Whirring feedback and tape manipulation are part of the instrumental palette, alongside temple blocks, bells and chimes, ping-pong balls on piano strings, and a florid approach to "conventional" free playing.

Couple this with the fact that this is one of the most cleanly recorded items in ESP's catalog, and Explosions is a weighty historical artifact not to be missed.

Paul Bley Trio
Closer
ESP-Disk
2008

Closer is the first document of the "mature" Paul Bley Trio, recorded in 1965 with stalwart drummer Barry Altschul and Steve Swallow on bass. The session features ten short tracks, a far cry from later Bley Trio dates, which emphasized lengthy playing situations and sketchy, languid themes. Most of the pieces were composed by Carla Bley, though Ornette Coleman's "Crossroads" and Annette Peacock's "Cartoon" make appearances, both in almost vicious form, as does Paul's own Coleman-y blues rondo, "Figfoot."

The set starts with "Ida Lupino," Carla's winsome homage to the Italian actress. It's brilliantly theatrical in its collision of emotions—at once bluesy and pensive and yet with a joyous rejoinder. Interestingly, even on this extraordinarily direct thematic material, Bley, Swallow and Altschul maintain a suspended and nearly ambiguous air in their interplay as improvisations float around the tonal center. It's no wonder the tune was chosen for Bley's 45rpm single on ESP.

"Start" is frantic collective playing, sketches of "Ramblin'" and "Turnaround" making their way into the pianist's complex solo, with Altschul's brief unaccompanied statement a multi-layered percussion piece on its own. "Sideways In Mexico" features a brief two-part rhythm statement for its head, and Bley stitches together his bag of referential tricks in brief impulses as Altschul and Swallow disassemble time around him. The tune ends with a coda that seems like an inversion on the original theme (a not-unheard-of Carla Bley device).

Closer is an interesting early document from Paul Bley, his solos condensed in short bursts and the compositions rendered with extreme clarity at the expense of lengthy exploration. At less than thirty minutes in length, Closer's power is in its suggestion of a larger aesthetic, a window into a world of improvisation that's been fleshed out mightily in the ensuing years. Combined with Explosions, the lineage of avant-garde piano fits perfectly alongside that of the saxophone power-trio in the ESP catalogue.


Tracks and Personnel

Explosions

Tracks: Peasant Boy; Untitled Mixes; Explosions; And On; Wolfman.

Personnel: Bob James: piano, slide-whistle and percussion; Barre Phillips: bass; Bob Pozar: drums and percussion; Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma: electromagnetic tape and live electronics.

Closer

Tracks: Ida Lupino; Start; Closer; Sideways In Mexico; Batterie; And Now The Queen; Figfoot; Crossroads; Violin; Cartoon.

Personnel: Paul Bley: piano; Steve Swallow: bass; Barry Altschul: drums.


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