Paul Bley, piano – Mondsee Variations I – IX – ECM 1786, 55:43 ****:

Paul Bley is an innovative pianist who might be classified as a free jazz keyboardist, but I don’t think of him that way due to his strong melodic sense and the courageous use of space in his often extremely spare style. Born in Canada, Bley has long lived in the U.S. He was for a time married to Carla Bley. He worked with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, and in the early 1960s was the pianist in the also innovative & spare Jimmy Giuffre 3.

In the late 60s Bley explored an interest in electronics and synthesizers, doing some pioneer performing with the new Moogs.  He had already shown he liked piano tricks such as playing directly on the strings. Most performers into electronics are not known for a quality of understatement, so Bley was unique in this area.  However, like Denny Zeitlin and others, his fascination with electronic effects palled and he went back to the acoustic grand piano.  Bley had recorded well over a hundred CDs, and is said to have been an influence on Keith Jarrett.

In this case it’s just Bley and his Bösendorfer Imperial all alone in a hall in Austria.  This unique $175,000 instrument (though it’s getting some competition from Fazioli and others) is regarded by many as the world’s best-sounding grand piano.  It has a full eight-octave range, with nine additional sub-bass keys which can play notes suggested by a number of composers.  Even when not actually played they contribute to the rich foundation of lower frequencies in the overall timbre of the piano.  I remember when first hearing a recording of improvisations on the Bösendorfer – a Don Shirley LP. Tori Amos has two of ‘em!

Bley starts right out with a demonstration of the subwoofer end of the Bosendorfer – he strikes a fistful of keys down there and lets it reverberate like a distant thunderclap. Then he launches into an understated ballad that could be from Bill Evans except it’s not a tune you’ve ever heard before. Many of the notes and chords on the ten tracks are held way longer than normal, and the glorious ambience of the Bösendorfer colors them a rainbow of sonic hues. None of the “Variations” depart from the tonal world, so don’t fear that Bley is getting into Cecil Taylor territory.  I find he spins out continually new ideas and unique developments without ever sounding like he’s become stuck in a certain riff while thinking of what to do next, as I occasionally suspect with Keith Jarrett.  ECM provides gorgeous crystalline piano sonics, as usual. They also provide a somehow fitting accompaniment with their printed  notes – two photos of Bley at the piano, a listing of the Mondsee Variations I – IX and their timings and a total timing. And that’s it – no other notes whatever.

 – John Henry