Piano music has various personalities. It can be extroverted, jamming and far-reaching. It can be self-referential and have form that evolves only as it is played. It can be rigorously confined to form and fit well within conventional or traditional labels that have been assigned to it. Or it can be introverted and mindful, and beg to be embraced while being embracing.
The piano art of Paul Bley with his trio is the latter. This is more than evident on the ESP Disk re-release Closer. These brief pieces were recorded in 1965.
ESP has chosen the right record to reissue because it shows how Bley could and wanted to step away from the music he was accustomed to playing, having been associated with some of the most well-known musicians of his time, notably Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Ornette Coleman. Carla Bley, married to Paul Bley from 1957-67, composed nearly all of the ten pieces on this record; the exceptions being Coleman's "Crossroads," Annette Peacock's "Cartoon" and the pianist's own "Figfoot."
Bley places the piano in front of the music every time. Steve Swallow's bass pizzicatos and Barry Altschul's drum work fall in and out of the background, and keep the piano in the best of company.
Having alternated the introductory theme through chords and melody, once Bley dramatically runs down the keys, mounting a crescendo on the opening "Ida Lupino," the intimacy of the music to come is immediately captivating. Bley's playing is totally distinctive, hitting every note clearly and precisely, even playing two notes at a time, with an energy that clips along and is not about to dissipate into lethargy when its tempo slows. In fact, when the tempo does slow, he examines the notes that much more carefully, optimizing the dynamic of what follows. Bley comes very close to clustering at times, when he moves through note sequences. His sense of timing is impeccable; his sense of melody, exquisite. He carries the weight of the trio just as easily as he flies through the music.
Altschul's drumming is active; his sticks are constantly moving. When he lands on the snare or bass drum, it is squarely, quickly and without much reverberation. He is not necessarily a rhythm keeper. Neither is Swallow. His fingers are focused on extending the piano notes and when he is given a lead on "Batterie," he concentrates on making a way to bend pitches that opens the door for the piano's re-emergence.
Reissues of original recordings from the days when improvised music was evolving, in ways that were unanticipated during the hard bop era, bear significance. They are a reminder that improvisation is far from being a process to which no one can relate. The fact that these recordings share a presence with how improvised music has developed over forty years improves general acceptance of its creation. The music is beautiful, tuneful and entirely accessible.