Paul Bley – The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note (10 CDs) – Black Saint/Soul Note Records BXS 1027, CD 1: 39:55, CD 2: 42:01, CD 3: 44:04, CD 4: 55:46, CD 5: 76:47, CD 6: 55:20, CD 7: 70:49, CD 8: 50:36, CD 9: 59:16, CD 10: 62:14 [12/10/13] (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) ***1/2:
(CD 1, Sonor, 1984: Paul Bley – piano; George Cross McDonald – percussion)
(CD 2, Tango Palace, 1985: Bley – solo piano)
(CD 3, Hot, 1986: Bley – piano; John Scofield – electric guitar; Steve Swallow – electric bass; Barry Altschul – drums)
(CD 4, Notes, 1987: Bley – piano; Paul Motian, percussion)
(CD 5, Mindset, 1997: Bley – piano; Gary Peacock – bass)
(CD 6, Live at Sweet Basil, 1991: Bley – piano; John Abercrombie – electric guitar; Red Mitchell – bass; Altschul – drums)
(CD 7, Memoirs, 1990: Bley – piano; Charlie Haden – bass; Motian – drums)
(CD 8, Conversations with a Goose, 1996: Bley – piano; Jimmy Giuffre – clarinet, soprano saxophone; Swallow – electric bass)
(CD 9, Chaos, 1998: Bley – piano; Furio di Castri – bass; Tony Oxley – drums, percussion)
(CD 10, Not to be a Star, 1998: Bley – piano; Keshavan Maslak – alto saxophone, clarinet, poetry)
Fans of jazz pianist Paul Bley will get their monies worth with the 10-CD boxed set, The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note, released late in 2013. There’s more than 9 hours of music, and it encompasses many aspects of Bley’s creativity, from one-take improvisations to rehearsed material; from quartet to trio, and from duo to solo performances. Even so, this only a perfunctory summary of Bley’s work, since he has a huge discography which embodies modern jazz during the latter part of the 20th century and beyond, since he’s still writing, performing and recording.
The ten albums are split between the ‘80s and the ‘90s. The earliest record, Sonor, was initially offered in 1983. It is also one of the most avant-garde in this collection, and may be the most difficult to decipher. The ten pieces are free improvisations with Bley and percussionist/drummer George Cross McDonald (usually known as Geordie McDonald), a Canadian who previously backed Sonny Simmons and a pre-stardom Neil Young. However, there seems to be a communication problem. McDonald’s atonal, rhythm-less drumming often competes with Bley’s equally jarring keyboard runs, lines, notes and effects. The twosome blisters through the aptly named “Speed,” get dramatic on the discomforting “Darkness,” and show an Asian influence on the title track. Fittingly, Bley exploits the inside of his piano during the title piece as well as “Joined,” where he strikes and mutes the strings with his hands, while McDonald utilizes hand percussion in a minimalist manner.
What a change a different setting can make. Bley’s solo piano effort, Tango Palace, was also taped in 1983 (but not issued until 1985). It, too, has experimental moments, but overall the musicality and tone are brighter, probing but focused, warmer and more melodic. The ten extrapolations (all credited to Bley) display beauty and intellect. The title cut is spry but not necessarily sunny: perhaps an interlude for an overcast, lackadaisical afternoon. “Woogie” and “C.G.” are similar: notes are pitched into the air like confetti, while an agile rhythm girds the lower keyboard. The ballad “But Beautiful” is a highlight: Bley fosters the theme with composure, with tiny trills, a sharpened attack and just enough space. Other notables include “Return to Love,” which has an affecting sense of contrast, and the relatively succinct “Bound,” which conjures solo Thelonious Monk.
The other three 1980s projects contain some of the best stuff. Bley returns to a piano/percussion style on 1987’s Notes, a conversational collaboration with Paul Motian, who Bley had met in the early 1960s, after Bley moved to New York City. In Bley’s LP liner notes (reproduced on the CD slipcover back), Bley states, “I’m anti-composition. Most of this album is in fact improvised and was done in one take.” Most of the 13 pieces have an enduring characteristic: specific sections (such as the ephemeral “Ballade” and the melancholy “Love Hurts”) have elucidating alchemy. The juxtaposing “West 107th Street” has an impulsive streak which mimics a day in the life of urban existence, while “Batterie” has a striking, percussive approach where piano and drums push and prod each other: especially impressive here, and elsewhere, is how Motian uses brushes and cymbals.
Rounding out the 1980s are two live documents which feature two versions of the Paul Bley Group. Up first is Hot (from a 1985 night at NYC venue Lush Life; issued in 1986). The five extended pieces (four by Paul Bley and/or his former wife, Carla Bley; plus Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave?”) fluctuate in significance, but Bley’s abounding solos are stimulating, and the production and sound are consummate. The band has John Scofield, who is aggressive on electric guitar (markedly so on the opening Coleman number), Steve Swallow (who is correspondingly fiery on electric bass), and drummer Barry Altschul (who has an astute, four-minute solo intro on the multi-tiered “Mazatlan”). Live at Sweet Basil (which comprises material from a week-long stint in March, 1988 at the famed Big Apple jazz club; but not released until 1991), retains Altschul but swaps in John Abercrombie on electric guitar and bassist Red Mitchell (who was with Woody Herman and Red Norvo in the ‘50s, before heading to Europe for a prolonged stay). Bley’s “Blues Waltz” (which has a wonderful Mitchell solo turn) launches the set; the band again visits Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave?”; while the remainder of the concert spotlights standards: “My Old Flame,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Lover Man.” The 15-minute “Lover Man” is exquisite. Bley starts by himself, gradually unfurling a gentle extemporization, before the rest of the ensemble joins in.
The five 1990s-era albums are comparable in some ways to the 1980s undertakings, musically and otherwise, and consist of either trio or duo partnerships. On Memoirs (a 1990 endeavor), Bley reunites with two old friends: Motian and bassist Charlie Haden (Bley had connected with Haden, and Ornette Coleman, in L.A. in the late ‘50s). The 10 tunes offer a delicious dialogue between the trio members. Bley once more presents his adoration for Monk on a swinging “Monk’s Dream” and also generates a South American vibe on Coleman’s “Latin Genetics.” The threesome embark on deeper and more austere waters on carefully evolving cuts such as Haden’s “Dark Victory” and Bley’s midnight-situated “This Is the Hour,” where Motian’s sculpted percussion shadows Bley’s decisive notes, and Haden exhibits how a few, positioned bass notes and respectful moments of silence can tighten an aesthetic or texture into perfection. There are also bold, modernistic creations, such as Motian’s unrestricted “Sting a Ring.”
Another inventive trio excursion is 1996’s Conversations with a Goose (taped in 1993 at the same Milano studio as Memoirs). The leader on this is Jimmy Giuffre (another musical associate from Bley’s late-‘50s NYC days), who switches between clarinet and soprano sax. Swallow is on electric bass; Bley on piano. Most of the 13 tunes (which span from 45 seconds to over 10 minutes) were penned by Giuffre, with one each by Bley and Swallow. Caveat: Conversations with a Goose was previously included in the Giuffre Black Saint & Soul Note four-CD, boxed set which came out in 2012. Most of the hour-long program involves free-flowing camaraderie. Several numbers have an introspective absorption. Giuffre’s reeds curve or coil round the piano; the bass frequently twists away from any steady rhythm, establishing a penetrating impression of discovery. Sometimes there is subdued, confidential concentration, such as during Swallow’s solo bass apex “Campfire” or the softly-engrossed, misty “White Peaks.”
The concluding threesome CD, Chaos, dates from 1994 (but was not released until 1998), and entails 13 tunes which alter from solo, to duo, to trio mixtures with Bley, bassist Furio di Castri (a noted Italian who was in Enrico Rava’s group and supported Joe Lovano, an ailing Chet Baker, and others) and drummer/percussionist Tony Oxley (a foremost proponent and important mainstay of the UK free jazz scene). Anyone who is not a believer of totally improvised free jazz should avoid this pertinently-titled, 60-minute record. Oxley’s unaccompanied cuts are unconventional; the duet and trio conceptions follow suit, where bass, piano and drums yield irregular and unorthodox results; and the music escalates into confrontational upsurges. The anarchic music puts sounds together which rarely mesh nicely, where the tendency is to collide rather than build a harmonious auditory palette. Those who appreciate Cecil Taylor or Derek Bailey should find plenty to value.
The other two ‘90s albums are duet enterprises recorded within a two-year period. Mindset is a 1992 studio record with bassist Gary Peacock, issued in 1997. The 14 pieces (all but one attributed to Bley, Peacock or both) seem to be unprepared and unarranged: most have an experiential free jazz slant. Peacock’s acoustic bass has a warm, woody tone which accentuates Bley’s sometimes tender and sometimes dissonant timbre. Peacock aficionados should hear this obscure record just for his soloing, such as the veering “Touching Bass” or the shifting treatment, “Juniper Blue.” The lengthy Mindset (nearly 77 minutes) finishes with a too-brief, fast-paced translation of Coleman’s “Circle with a Hole in the Middle.” The final two duo projects are wildly unstructured. Not to Be a Star (recorded in late 1992, issued in 1993) is steered by Keshavan Maslak (also called Kenny Millions), an eminent free jazz/avant-garde artist. The almost 13-minute lead-in, “Trying Hard to Be,” determines the mood: at times, sensitive and empathetic, other times surreal, where expectations are discarded. The events can even get comical (Maslak isn’t afraid to belch into his horn, or skitter out overlapping, overdubbed clarinet and alto sax). Some compositions are poetically beautiful (Maslak’s solo “Star,” for example), while another employs spoken-word parts (the flavorless closer, “Trying Hard to Be Human”). Bley listeners might not get much out of Not to Be a Star, because most of the music centers on Maslak, and the general attitude is more Maslak than Bley.
The package has one surprise: although nine CDs are listed on the outside, there are ten albums inside (the uncredited bonus is Maslak’s Not to Be a Star). Like all other Black Saint/Soul Note reissue boxed sets, everything has been remastered, which is prominent on the duet albums, particularly when quiet percussion or sonorous bass is in the forefront. The remastering is less obvious on the live albums, which have slightly less fidelity, caused by the original recording conditions. Like prior Black Saint/Soul Note boxed sets, this is a bare-bones collection. CDs are housed in paper slipcases with no supplementary photos or booklets. The only liner notes are those originally printed on the LP back covers: the font is so small on some slipcases even a magnifying glass does not always make the text readable.
TrackList:CD 1: Little Bells, Landscape, Speed, Recollection, Joined, Sonor, Waltz, Set, Darkness, Tight Rope CD 2: Tango Palace, C.G., Woogie, A.G.B., But Beautiful, Return Love, Bound, Zebra Walk, Please, Explain CD 3: When Will the Blues Leave, Around Again, How Long, Mazatlan, Syndrome CD 4: Notes, Batterie, Piano Solo No. 1, West 107th Street, Just Us, No. 3, Turns, Ballad, Excerpt, Love Hurts, Inside, Finale, Diane CD 5: Random Mist, Sunrise Sunlight, How Long, E.D.T., Back Lash, Duality, Juniper Blue, Meltdown, Heyday, Touching Bass, Flashpoint, Mindset, Where Can UB, Circle with the Hole in the Middle CD 6: Blues Waltz, Lover Man, When Will the Blues Leave?, My Old Flame, My Foolish Heart CD 7: Memoirs, Monk’s Dream, Dark Victory, Latin Genetics, This Is the Hour, Insanity, New Flame, Sting a Ring, Blues for Josh, Enough Is Enough CD 8: Conversations with a Goose, The Flock Is In, Echo Through the Canyon, Three Ducks, Watchin’ the River, Cobra, Among the High Rocks, White Peaks, Calls in the Night, Lonely Days, Jungle Critters, Restless CD 9: Chaos, Touching Bass, Modulating, Soft Touch, Poetic Justice, Interpercussion 1, Touch Control, Turnham Bay, Street Wise, Bow Out, Starting Over, Interpercussion 2, Template CD 10: Trying Hard to Be, A Star Trying, Too Hard to Be a Star, I Must Try, Not to Be, A Star, Try Hard not To, Be a Star, Trying to Be, A Human Being, Trying Hard to Be Human.