Aged 81 and ailing, the likelihood of Canadian expatriate pianist Paul Bley giving (m)any more concerts is limited. But this newly issued 2008 live performance from Oslo easily confirms why the unique style he developed in the early 1960s has influenced many pianists including Keith Jarrett.
Except for Sonny Rollins’ Pent-Up House, which Bley performs in response to vociferous demands for an encore from the audience – and to which he appends some so-called classical trope to the boppish line – all the compositions are his. Given enough time to develop, each is, for all intents and purposes, a suite, which brings in many allusions. Deceptively lyrical as well as maintaining a blues sensibility, Flame’s ringing key strokes suggest nightclub ballads like My Way, but with a cleaner interface. The dramatic Longer is crowded with chords and arpeggiated runs that would be as didactic as an Art Tatum performance if Bley didn’t slyly insert what sounds like a lick from Arrivederci Roma midway through.
Bravura, but without bravado, Bley defines his art on Far North and Way Down South Suite. Starting off in a nervy gallop, he first cycles through passing chords and glances at the American Songbook before settling into an impressionistic melody that by the finale vibrates basso, bop-like textures from the soundboard. Sharp and intense, the titled Suite piles strident glissandi and blues allusions into an exposition, then after a theatrical many-seconds pause, first deconstructs the melody then focuses it again with even-handed dynamics. Bley’s piano command is such that without leaving the keys it appears as if he’s violently plucking the instrument’s strings as he plays.
We can hope that more Bley will appear on record. But if this concert recording is his swan song, the unique mixture of skills which made his reputation are definitely and appropriately exhibited on it.