New Album Spotlight: Paul Bley’s "When Will the Blues Leave"

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Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian Photo © Patrick Hinely Work/Play / ECM Records

“If music is conversation then questions will come up because in conversation there are many questions. Questions lead to answers, which lead to more questions. That is what makes music continue: the questions and their answers.”—Paul Bley (ECM)

ECM recently released a posthumous album by pianist Paul Bley titled When Will the Blues Leave. Named after a song by Ornette Coleman, the album was recorded in Lugano, Switzerland in 1999 but never released until now. The trio album features Keith Jarrett’s longtime bassist, Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian, known for his work with pianist Bill Evans on his classic Riverside trio albums. It’s an interesting musical trifecta, with Bley playing with two other musicians famous for their work with other pianists. 

I love this new ECM album. Bley’s improvisations are angular, jagged, and challenging. Most are meditative and allow plenty of space for bass and drum solos. There is often a gap between when he finishes a song and when the audience realizes it has ended and starts clapping—even the applause is somewhat muted. The exception is the buoyant, classic Coleman title tune “When Will the Blues Leave,” after which the audience erupts. The performance is classic later Bley, joined in musical conversation by two masters he knew well.

The three musicians shared a lot of history, especially Bley and Peacock. (Bley actually married Annette Peacock after she divorced Gary Peacock.) They first recorded together in 1963, for the ECM album Paul Bley with Gary Peacock. Bley would often play with either Peacock or Motion over many years, but the three would not reunite for a recording until 1999’s Not Two, Not One. Bley enthused, “The three of us actually playing together, that hasn’t happened since 1963!”

Throughout his long career, Paul Bley was always an experimenter and abstract modernist with a musical language of his own. I loved his first album for Charlie Mingus’ Debut label, with Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Bley was just 21 years old but had already mastered the bebop language. He also added modern twists he had learned while studying at Montreal’s McGill Conservatory, where he earned a junior diploma at age 11. Bley later attended Juilliard and studied privately with a modernist classical teacher in France, all the while continuing to perfect his mastery of the instrument. He mixed all these elements into his unique approach to the piano. I do prefer Paul Bley in a group setting. On his many solo projects, he is meditative and cerebral, waiting for the muse to inspire his next move. I once heard that he never planned solo concerts, but rather improvised everything on the spot, producing a stream-of-consciousness music.

Bley didn’t tour much in the U.S., preferring the more fertile soil of Europe, where he recorded many albums on many different labels, some studio and some live concerts. His prodigious discography includes more than fifty albums, many of which were never imported to the U.S. but are still available online. I published this obit shortly after Bley’s death on January 3, 2016, and it includes shout-outs to other Bley albums I’ve loved over the years.

I am happy that ECM finally released When Will the Blues Leave. Bley recorded many albums, mostly in Europe, that are still in the can. Hopefully those will see the light of day as well. In the meantime, listen to the title track and two other tracks from When Will the Blues Leave: