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In the intervening half century since he first appeared on record, pianist Paul Bley has cut a huge number of records and left an unmistakable trail of music defining his own view of avant-garde jazz. (Is is still called avant-garde decades later?) He's worked with a virtual who's who of improvised music, but here for his fifth solo release on Justin Time, it's just Bley and his piano doing the talking.
Bley has always had a talent for bridging intellectual leaps within a perspective that remains direct and unassuming. These four pieces, spanning eight to eighteen minutes in length, allow the artist plenty of time to do his thing. Because he doesn't rush through the exercise, there's a sense of ideas being elaborated on the spot in a stepwise fashion, and you can follow that seeming stream of consciousnessness flow with your ear. Nothing to Declare has a very intimate sound; you can hear the mechanics of the piano and follow Bley quietly singing along. Because he pedals heavily, even closely guarded melodies acquire a more expasive harmonic cast, and regular shifts in overtones imply layers of texture that don't simply wash away when he lifts his foot or hands.
The title tune, based on "All The Things You Are," carries with it a sense of awe and wonder, something Bley cultivates through extended meditations. It's not the most extroverted music, to put it bluntly, but you don't have to strain yourself to get the message loud and clear. The remaining three pieces are similarly guarded and reverential, though they invoke more of the blues and an overt sense of drama. Bley's lyricism has never been blunt or simplistic, and Nothing to Declare is nothing to be glossed over with a superficial listen, but it's sufficiently natural that the spontaneous leaps in logic make good sense.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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