It always seemed unfair that Paul Bley wasn't a household name in the jazz world—few musicians have had such fascinating, sustained, and creatively restless careers. The pianist, who died Sunday at age 83 at his home in Stuart, Florida, was involved in his modest way with some of the most important developments in jazz and worked with many of the greatest players it ever produced. His 1953 debut album, Introducing Paul Bley, featured sidemen no less illustrious than drummer Art Blakey and bassist Charles Mingus—the latter released the album on his own Debut Records imprint.
Five years later, Bley enlisted Ornette Coleman's quartet with Don Cherry to play with him at LA's Hillcrest Club. Coleman, who was in the midst of liberating his melodic playing from the constraints of harmony, spent most of his career playing without pianists, but the live recordings from that engagement still sound great today—Bley, despite playing an instrument that's shackled more tightly than most to conventional harmony, sought like Coleman to cut his melodies loose from its straitjacket. A few years later, Bley was working in another radical ensemble, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with bassist Steve Swallow, whose chamber-music sound was distinguished by a remarkable interactive imperative—all three musicians improvised on fragile themes with a sensitivity well beyond what most listeners expected in jazz.
Some of my favorite Bley recordings were the ones he made for ECM in the early 70s, just as the influential label was getting started—for the rest of his life it continued to release his music, most recently Play Blue: Oslo Concert, a solo recording from 2008 issued last year. On the 1971 album Ballads, with drummer Barry Altschul and bassists Gary Peacock and Mark Levinson (who took turns), Bley demonstrated his remarkable sense of space and time—he turned its three compositions, all written by Annette Peacock, into patient meditations, shaping every phrase with exquisite care, articulation, and subtlety. He spread his notes far apart, as if examining every utterance of his piano as it happened, but his luxuriously sparse playing never felt halting or tentative—it shaped some of the most poignant and beautiful statements ever recorded.
Bley made so many excellent recordings that it's hard to choose one to share here, but I've decided to turn today's 12 O'Clock Track into a 12 O'Clock Side. This is side one of The Turning Point, recorded in 1964 and 1968 but unissued until 1975. It's a classic collaboration with Peacock, saxophonist John Gilmore (perhaps his greatest performance outside the Sun Ra Arkestra), and drummers Paul Motian and Billy Elgart (though not on the same tracks).