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Paul Bley: Solo in Mondsee

Budd Kopman By

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Paul Bley will be seventy-five in November, 2007 and has been recording for over fifty years, taking part in every revolution in jazz since 1950. Famously competitive and a tireless introspector, Bley is recognizable not so much by a particular style, but by his restless attitude and intensity, and perhaps the solidity of each note played.

The wonderful and quite entrancing Solo in Mondsee is the result of Bley's relationship with the ECM label, which goes back almost to its inception with the album Paul Bley With Gary Peacock (ECM, 1970) and his solo album, Open, to Love (ECM, 1972). However, he has made many more recordings (solo and not) for other labels (including his own, Improvising Artists), and notably SteepleChase.

Solo In Mondsee has something of a summing-up feel about it, as Bley spins ten improvisations by himself, for himself. The piano, a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, is magnificent and the recording technically superb. A good playback system will render a real piano in real space, and Bley makes it sing, with the piano as a percussive instrument repressed.

The improvisations are not given names, but merely numbered, and yet they each have a personality, a central concept. Starting with a low-end crash that sounds like distant thunder which is allowed to slowly die away, Bley most certainly gets your attention immediately. "I" has an air of romanticism and melancholy about it, perhaps being a musical memory of a rainy day.

In general, the music has the feel of tonality—or at least a tonal center—about it, but most of the time in a gauzy way, thus making a clear progression jump out at the listener, especially an ending cadence that marks a tonality that, in retrospect, is now apparent.

Each improvisation centers on a different, clearly audible musical idea. The playing is accessible because Bley repeats these motives, many times changing the harmony, thereby creating a recognizable structure. The overall rhythm is generally not fixed, but sections do have a pulse.

The music's romanticism comes from the playing style of right hand melody supported by left hand chords (rolled or arpeggiated), the singing quality of the melodies that flow from Bley, and the way the harmony is extended, creating lushness. In sum, the word "beautiful" is easy to apply to much of the music as real melodies combine with lush harmony.

A key factor that allows the user to get inside the music is that there is a rigorous improvisational logic ever present. Bley has spoken about a "tape loop" in his head that precludes him repeating himself or others. The music that does come out manages to sound planned and improvised simultaneously, and this is part of its attractiveness and power.

In Solo in Mondsee, Bley has produced music that can be enjoyed on many levels, many times over, and is a fitting document of this master improviser.

Track Listing: Mondsee Variations I-X.

Personnel: Paul Bley: piano.

Title: Solo In Mondsee | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: ECM Records

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