Picasso, Coltrane, and Paul Bley (Paul Who?)

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People have heard of the first two names, but not Paul Bley. Who was he and what did he have in common with the other two famous figures?

Bley is a Canadian-born (1932) pianist who plays jazz, studied in France with classical teachers, and came to Los Angeles in 1958 to play with the first rule-breaking Ornette Coleman Quintet: Ornette playing yellow plastic alto sax, Bley on piano, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins playing drums. The band made some very new and controversial music at the Hillcrest Club near today’s Korea Town. The live set is pretty amazing. Bley was the first of only two pianists he ever recorded with, the other being Walter Norris, who played on the Contemporary LP Something Else. Bley is a longtime New York resident who hardly ever comes west. Usually he goes to Europe instead.

Paul Bley recorded his first LP on Charlie Mingus‘ label Debut, called Introducing Paul Bley. He works with Mingus and Art Blakey on the 1953 recording. Bley swings like hell on classic songs like Horace Silver’s “Opus de Funk” and other bebop standards like “Tea Cup”. But while his style is virtuosic bebop, Bley inserts little dissonances and odd notes that make his sound very singular among all the pianists working back then. (I also love his Complete Savoy Sessions 1962-3).   Bley had several early teachers, including one who had him play piano with water glasses on his wrists to learn proper keyboard position and technique.  Bley graduated from McGill Conservatory at 11 (!!).  He later studied modern classical music in Paris and his improvisations have imbued with a modernist sensibility he derived from these experiences.  Bley has always had a searching and elliptical style;  his later works are more introspective.

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“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso. The dramatic break from traditional composition and perspective in painting

What connects him with the famous artist Pablo Picasso and jazz legend John Coltrane is that he mastered the prevailing form. For Picasso, it was moving away from the representational painting of the Blue Period and turning it all on its head with 1907’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”.  For Coltrane, it was breaking away from bebop, hardbop, and chordal music and moving into modal styles with his great Village Vanguard 1961 recordings and the recordings that followed, including the avant garde records from 1965-1967.

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The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings box set

For Paul Bley, it was moving away from bebop into a more cerebral style, first with the French modernist musical influences, then with Ornette, then into the spare, impressionistic styles he’s used for the past twenty five years. He creates abstract piano canvases where he paints music of color, shading, and texture. He plays what he is seeing in his head, echoing Picasso’s famous saying that he didn’t paint what was outside, he painted what was inside his head. The same is true of jazz improvisation, and Bley’s later work is a good example. Picasso also once observed, “A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change.”

So all three artists went from orthodoxy to avant garde, to expressing their own inner language and creative vision. In that respect they are similar.

An added note that Bley’s 1965 ESP-Disk album Closer has just been reissued from the original master tape. It features Steve Swallow on acoustic bass and Barry Altschul on drums.

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Paul Bley’s reissued 1965 Closer album

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