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Book Review

Time Will Tell: Conversations With Paul Bley


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But even more compelling than the anecdotes about jazz greats are Bley's outrageously freewheeling bits of advice to new jazz pianists.
Time Will Tell: Conversations With Paul Bley
Norman Meehan
Berkeley Hills Books, 2003

Paul Bley's jazz career has been marked by a burning creative restlessness continually leading to new musical discoveries. An earlier book about Bley, Stopping Time, was a collaborative effort matching Bley the grand raconteur with writer David Lee. Time Will Tell repeats that formula,this time with jazz academic and journalist Norman Meehan, although with strikingly more success. Bley's storytelling about himself and his inspired and inspiring fellow musicians (Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins)is marked by both intelligent admiration and disarming candor. His love/hate relationship with pianist Bill Evans is wonderfully illuminated through Bley's detailed description of a recording session they shared creating George Russell's complex Jazz In The Space Age album. Quite unsparing of his ruthlessly competitive spirit toward other pianists, he admits thinking of Evans, "I'm going to knock this guy out, and he's going to sound bad," only finding that Evans in his own sweet way elevated his playing to the point where Bley met his match.

But even more compelling than the anecdotes about jazz greats are Bley's outrageously freewheeling bits of advice to new jazz pianists. There's exciting advice about synthesizing world musical styles with jazz: "If you can establish an aesthetic that is not metrical, and apply it to world music, which is metrical, you have opened up a whole range of possibilities." What young musician wouldn't benefit from Bley's perfectionism: "I love the expression, "Going past excellence. . ." And Bley, while not pretending to possess literary skills, — hence this book as a second installment of a jazz oral history — reveals a poet's awareness of the restraints of vocabulary: "There are not enough words to describe the details of what we do. A lot of people are called musicians, but there should be ten or twenty terms used to refer to people who make music. . .That's always the goal, to make interesting or beautiful sounds."

The jazz book as oral history, often stitched together by a professional writer, has had a checkered history. Yet Time Will Tell is an extraordinary feat: a "talked" document replete with lyrical turns of phrases, raucous humor, unorthodox advice for the novice or seasoned player, and instructive gossip about jazz greats. Bley the reconteur is just as seductive as Bley the pianist, a free spirit reinventing jazz with a romantically playful imagination always on the move.

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