Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Paul Bley…on the subject of playing forever…

Upon hearing the news of pianist Paul Bley’s passing on January 3rd, 2016...

I met Paul Bley at the Ravenna Jazz Festival in Italy sometime in the early ‘90s.  He was playing with Steve Swallow and Jimmy Giuffre.  I was there with Joey Baron’s group “Baron Down” and we were sharing the bill with them.  The concert took place at the Teatro Alighieri, a beautiful opera house built in the 1800’s.  It was great to hear them play and Paul was very complementary towards us.  After the concert I was walking back to the hotel, taking my time as the streets were active and it was nice to see what was going on.  Along the way I happened to glance into a coffee shop and to my surprise saw Paul standing alone in the back having a coffee.  I really wanted to talk to him about a musical issue that was on my mind so I went over and said hello and we began chatting.  I explained that for some years I had been investigating ways to play rhythmically free while retaining the harmonic form of a song in time, something that I hadn’t heard that many people do. I told him that I’d been trying to trace the impetus of this idea and that I had the feeling that he was the guy to ask.

While it’s a bit problematic to single out one person I had always suspected that Paul was at least close to the source of this.  He had played with Ornette Coleman very early on in his career. Ornette Coleman’s phrasing was very organic to my ear, insinuating a freer sense of harmony by virtue of his melodies and how they were placed.  Paul also played with Sonny Rollins, who on the other hand was right on it with respect to the harmony but with an amazingly flexible time feel and use of phrasing that bordered on free.  I remember driving home late one night after a gig in Baltimore and hearing a long cut by Sonny on the radio, a twenty minute vamp on one chord.  His playing was powerful and his ideas were abundant, a fountain of imagination.  But his phrasing was loose to the point that it almost sounded drunk, except that the nuances were very detailed and his timing was incredibly precise.  I almost had to stop the car just to listen.  It made a big impression on me.

I’ve told the story a number of times about how this idea of loose and organic phrasing combined with an exact sense of time and harmony came together for me one afternoon at a jam session.  And how that same evening I had the opportunity to sit in on a gig with Paul Motian (a long time collaborator with Paul Bley) which catalyzed the whole thing in a “never look back” kind of way. You can read about this in more detail in a previous post that I wrote about Paul Motian.  And so in looking to find out where this all might have come from I began listening and tracing more deeply some of the musical currents that lead up to it.  In retrospect, I can hear this going all the way back to Louis Armstrong.  But somehow it seems to have gotten lost amid the mostly eighth note oriented approach to jazz playing that dominated when I was coming up (and in many ways still does).  But there was this one “modern” recording that particularly stood out, “Sonny Meets Hawk” from 1963.  I’d never heard Sonny Rollins play quite the way he does on this recording, rather startling, and I’ve always wondered what was going on there.  Did it have something to do with Coleman Hawkins’ presence? How could that not affect a person, especially another saxophonist? Paul Bley plays on this date and his solo on “All the Things You Are” was equally startling and multidimensional.

So I spelled all of this out for Paul Bley right there in the coffee shop. And I asked “what was the dynamic between Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins?  And “where did this way of playing come from that I heard in your solo?” I think these were the only questions I asked.  It was certainly all I said for the next hour or so.  Paul took my questions and spun an elaborate and somewhat confusing (though I didn’t dare interrupt) story that began with his time on the road with Sonny Rollins and gradually morphed, spilling into all kinds of other tangental areas finally ending with the proclamation that in six months time the CD will be dead and we’ll all be forced to create visual imagery to go along with our music, just to stay in business (this was 1994). It was a wild ride, hugely entertaining if not somewhat illogical and contradictory at many turns.  And I never got a straight answer to my question.  I’m not sure he even addressed it.  But I do remember very vividly his description of what it felt like playing in Sonny’s band.  He said they were playing every night plus these matinee gigs on Sunday afternoons.  He spoke about how over the period of some weeks Sonny kept upping the ante during his solos and how it made Paul feel in trying to keep up.  Sonny would play longer and longer solos in which the intensity went unabated.  It got to the point where Paul felt that the attitude became one of playing forever.  When Sonny was playing, he was simply going to play forever.  And when it was time for Paul to play he was in turn going to have to play forever as well.  Imagine that kind of commitment. Forever.  I’m going to play forever.  There are a lot of ways you could take that, both positively or negatively, seriously or not.  But it was almost as if he were reliving the experience in telling it to me.  I was kind of in awe of this even as I was also a little confused.

To be honest I’m still unsure what he really meant or what he may have been trying to get at.  But it’s a great thing to wonder about.  Now, in thinking about Paul Bley’s passing, twenty years later and moving through the imaginary barrier between one year and the next, is it time to reflect? Or time to look ahead?  To sum up the past or forecast the future doesn’t seem right somehow.  Lately I’m beginning to feel more and more as if it’s all right here, right now. Nothing’s missing.  In spending that bemused hour with Paul I could only make sense of what he was saying as a flow. But what was he getting at? Perhaps he was just being mischievous but I sensed more than that.  That’s why I didn’t want to interrupt him.  I knew there was something special in his story telling, something in between the lines, and I knew I might miss it if I wasn’t paying close attention. And here I am, still wondering.  Best not to try and sum it all up.  Being a little confused can be good.  Things are messy, agendas are many.  And yet there is truth all around us.  Learn from what’s right in front of you, an idea that I try and instill in my students.  Good to keep reminding myself as well.  Thanks Paul.

For those who read Italian there is a review of that evening’s concert.


  1. Besides being a musician who I think will go down as one of the most influential of our era (deifnitely the most influential on me, for whatever that's worth), you are also an exceptional writer. Thanks for the great read Ellery, another thought-provoking and entertaining post.