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Reviews of Recent Recordings

Paul Bley + Gary Peacock + Paul Motian
When Will the Blues Leave
ECM 2642

Jimmy Giuffre 3
Graz Live 1961
Hat Hut ezz-thetics 1001

One day, I suspect Paul Bley’s posthumous releases will rival the finest work he produced during his lifetime. At his death in January 2016, the pianist had appeared on more than 100 commercially released recordings, largely as a leader. But there is still unsalvaged treasure. Henk Kluck’s meticulous discography, Bley Play (now in its third edition), documents more than 200 unreleased, private recordings. In 2001, Bley himself sold dozens of tapes to Canada’s national library, where they remain, largely untapped. At least a handful, I would wager, are release-worthy in an instant.

But in Paul Bley’s world, in his life and in his music, you often ended up on the road less traveled. There may be undiscovered jewels in Ottawa or a European broadcaster’s vaults, but you wonder who will have the will (and the means) to deliver them to a wider audience. “One thing I did get from IAI,” Bley wrote, many years after shutting down Improvising Artists, the label he ran with his partner Carol Goss, “is that now when I talk to a record company, I understand the nature of the transaction from both sides. I’ve learned that people who run jazz record companies are patrons of the art and by and large should be regarded as saints!”

Since his death, Bley’s value among pianists has edged upward. To a wider audience, however, he continues to recede from view. That wasn’t always true. Despite spending most of his adult life in the United States, he remained a Canadian, where he was lauded, periodically, in his later years. In 1992 (the summer before his 60th birthday), the Montreal Jazz Festival honored the pianist with a four-night concert series. In 2008, Bley was named a member of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor.

                                                                                                                                          ©Rolf Ambor

The Jimmy Giuffre 3, whose original incarnation lasted barely three years, might be emblematic of his fate: artistic mastery, commercial silence. In the early sixties, the clarinetist’s trio (with Bley and bassist Steve Swallow) produced two records for Verve, then one for Columbia; neither company chose to retain them after that. As Swallow recently explained, the trio “had had some success in Europe, and none whatsoever in the United States.”

Swallow still remembers their final gig – until a reunion in the late 1980s. “We were working on a job on a second-floor coffeehouse on Bleecker Street, near LaGuardia Place,” Swallow said. “We were playing for the door. That’s what was available. Not even a $5 guarantee. At the end of one of a few nights we played there, we tallied up the door money. We’d made 35 cents each. So we took our 35 cents and went to a place called the Hip Bagel, which was the non-alcoholic, after-hours hang of choice at the time. And talked about it and disbanded.”

Graz Live 1961 joins Bremen & Stuttgart 1961 (two early-nineties Hat Arts reissued with extra tracks by Emanem in 2016) as remnants from a landmark European tour in the fall of that year. Graz, Austria was the second stop. According to Kluck’s research, private tapes also exist from Tubingen, Germany, the tour’s first date.

But Graz Live 1961 isn’t just for completists. Sure, it’s a set of familiar music (the group’s signature combination of pieces by Giuffre, in the main, and Paul and Carla Bley). But it’s also an extraordinary 75-minute performance – another glimpse into a group whose true value continues to be reckoned with over time. Take Giuffre’s “Trance.” The line appears briefly; after 10 seconds it’s gone. Time dissolves. Then Bley dives into the piano’s innards: a wicked groove, where radical, extended technique serves rhythm rather than abstraction. Swallow resurfaces, a wonderful two-step and a duo with Giuffre. “Brief Hesitation,” a gorgeous miniature, becomes a shifting, haunting free improvisation, a masterwork of shade and this wonderfully elastic sense of time. Just think: it’s now been half a century since Swallow gave up the acoustic bass. To hear him on the instrument again, at 21, is a wonderful thing – these were early days, just a year after he’d abandoned Yale and moved to Manhattan. On this October night, he is in remarkable form. That rich, rough, earthy sound – alone, midway into “Whirr,” or walking, digging deep down, the heart of a marvelous, soaring finale “That’s True, That’s True.”

The reappearance of Bley’s trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian at the end of the century remains one of the highlights of the pianist’s final, active years. Their return (at Peacock’s urging) began with ECM’s Not Two, Not One, a New York studio date from January 1998. When Will the Blues Leave is an impeccably recorded live set in Lugano, Switzerland from the following year. One of the great mysteries of late-career Bley – to both audiences and to his colleagues – was his reluctance to just let trios be trios. He’d often need to break things down. He’d envision solos and duos, and then maybe, at the end of the night, the whole group. That impulse is here, too; “Told You So” and “I Loves You, Porgy” feature Bley on his own. But the rest of the night is pure trio music – an incredible document, really, if we remember just where these three were in 1999. The work they produced in that era was so abundant that you sometimes forgot the calendar: in Lugano, Motian is 78; Bley, 76; Peacock, 74. Bley, as he often did in those days, tugs between this unobstructed romanticism and unlikely, often unresolved epigrams – consider the arc of “Flame.” Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave,” a tune they might have called in 1963, the year they first they played together, is performed at a punishing clip. After disassembling the line, the trio unpacks everything else – time, structure – and Coleman’s piece disappears. On Bley’s “Mazatlan,” the melody returns after nearly eight minutes. Soon, any conventional path to the end vanishes: a new, very beautiful line appears, draws Peacock and Bley together, then Motian too. It’s a marvelous moment, hearing these men pushing, asking questions right to the end.
–Greg Buium

New World

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