Paul Bley was an enchanting, unparalleled piano genius to the end

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(Video is of a different performance not on the album.)

On January 3, 2016, jazz piano pioneer Paul Bley passed away at the age of 83. One of the most original pianists of all time, Bley’s long, productive career spanned much of jazz history itself, having played with Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorious and Ornette Coleman. And yet his own vision for jazz was derivative of no one, but influential to generations of progressive-minded jazz musicians who followed. Though he was masterful in a trio setting, Bley alone was on a whole other plane.

He had made relatively few solo piano records in a recording career spread over seven decades, but Open, To Love (1973) was memorable, even considered a solo piano classic in some quarters. The most enduring pianists in jazz — Tatum, Waller, Evans, Monk — all spoke in a language all their own. Bley isn’t mentioned as much as those guys but he undeniably belongs in that company, and those with such rare qualities usually make the most compelling solo piano records (I would argue, they are the only kind of pianists who truly do).

That statement holds true for this souvenir of a concert Bley performed at the Oslo Jazz Festival in 2008. Play Blue (May 6, 2014, ECM Records) is a reordering of the words “Paul Bley,” and just like the title, the music is different from most other Bley albums but made up of the same components.

The Paul Bley who sits behind a piano in front of a live audience and no accompaniment is Bley in his purest form, a man whose quirkiness is derived from being a chameleon of sorts, gliding back and forth between tradition and the vanguard, as he’s done since the Eisenhower Administration. His complex personality is fully displayed on the lengthy opening number “Far North”: he metes out the melody like Morse code at first, but gives it soft edges. He goes through several moods, and they often overlap. He’ll open up, get joyful, and then get pensive. He’ll pattern his phrasing from classical music or human singing. He might have passages of freedom but never a single instance of disorganization. One moment he plays emaciated the next he’s reeling off a dense cluster. Just when you think he’s abandoned melody, he conjures up a gorgeous motif. And then, the whole thing comes crashing to a sudden end with a dark, resonating chord.

The “Way Down South Suite” spans over even more terrain, if that’s possible. It begins with the darkness carried over from “North” but evolves into a series of ascending chords delivered in a free manner, and an Appalachian melody briefly breaks out. The song builds up to an abrupt false conclusion, and the second part begins. Here, Bley presents a gorgeous passage, traverses in a natural cadence, and wanders but never wanders away from the main thread of his musical narrative. He turns menacing to complete part two. In the next section, another pleasant passage inconspicuously transforms into dense expressions and unrestricted meanderings.

“Flame” uses yet another fetching melody, this time to begin the performance, with a brief, free interludes dropped on the middle of it. But Bley keeps returning to that beauty and later on, the freedom is folded in with the beauty. “Longer” is episodic, much like the rest of the songs, to the point of being nearly like an opera; at different times it’s delicate and thunderous.

Bley’s encore is the only song during the concert he didn’t compose; his former boss Sonny Rollins wrote this one so long ago. The pianist introduces the theme of “Pent-Up House” with little adornment, and then applies his own deconstruction to it, always touching back on familiar fragments of the melody so as to leave markers for the listener. Bley’s unique and incisive interpretations of other people’s songs (especially those of his ex-wife Carla Bley) is yet another part of his legacy, so this is the perfect way to close out the gig.

Play Blue, The Oslo Concert is an unfiltered manifestation of Bley’s genius, proving that even in his final years, his creative light hadn’t dimmed at all.

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