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Paul Bley: Play Blue

Dan McClenaghan By

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Pianist Paul Bley, born in 1932, began his jazz career in the 1950's, working with every one from saxophonists Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and Ornette Coleman, as well as clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and trumpeter Chet Baker, and more legends of the time than can be listed here. He has, under his own name, made over a hundred recordings, in every style. The most often mentioned of these scores of recordings are two solo piano sets for ECM Records, 1972's Open, To Love and Solo In Mondsee, recorded in 2001 and released in 2007. The former is considered a game-changing work that helped establish the "ECM sound," with its spacious approach and stark loveliness. The latter, coming to light thirty-five years later, is more of the same, with more depth and wisdom, more surprise and a melodically labyrinthine, off-center beauty. The level of originality remains the same: awe-inspiring.

Recorded live in concert in Oslo, Norway, Play Blue finds Bley stretching out, with the first tune, "Far North," clocking in at seventeen minutes," and "Way Down South Suite" rolling along for another quarter hour. Both the Mondsee set and Open, To Love featured a more concise approach, each featuring tunes in the two to eight minute range. The expansion of the time frame allows more twists and turns, allows Bley the opportunities to create more forks in the winding roads he forges—roads that snake along in segments of never repeating topographies before a right angle jumps out, a perpendicular that Bley steers onto and somehow maintains the melodic, song-like logic he has established.

"Far North" opens with a jittery rhythm, a jaunty sparkle. This is Bley in a gregarious mood—bright and insistent, basking in the joy of sound. Then he takes a ninety degree turn into a jumble of notes, tinged with the atonal, before he stops for a dead second and turns again to examine some abstraction. "Way Down South Suite" begins as a moody rumination. The blues bubble up, and a segment that might be a soundtrack to a surreal, madcap cartoon bursts into existence, the pianist's left hand creating dark, rolling clouds.

Bley's music is sometimes described as "austere." Certainly it is on Open, To Love. But Play Blue is a much lusher sound, and it is lovelier—perhaps more so than anything Bley has recorded in his storied career.

Two shorter Bley-penned tunes are offered up, each exquisite, followed by Sonny Rollins' "Pent-Up House," energetic and forceful, a touchstone if anybody needs one.

Bley's music rambles. He never plays anything twice, not even on a fifteen or seventeen minute tune. Every second of his music is a voyage of discovery. On Play Blue he has created a profound and timeless beauty. A career highlight.

Track Listing: Far North; Way Down South Suite; Flame; Longer; Pent-Up House.

Personnel: Paul Bley: piano.

Title: Play Blue | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: ECM Records


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