The pianist Paul Bley died this week, which of course led me to pull out his records -- Closer, Barrage, and Mr. Joy in particular -- and revisit his playing (and/or his mind; the two were virtually one and the same). The striking thing about Bley, I realized while listening, is that he was a sly interloper in the free jazz world. He obviously had respect for what his colleagues were doing, but smuggled a certain restraint into the scene.
That understated nature would eventually become Bley's calling card, after he started recording for ECM and, in turn, birthing an entire new sound, but it's so thrilling to hear him sneak it into his otherwise wild early recordings. The rebel to the rebels, I guess you could say.
I also revisited a discussion between the New York Times' Ben Ratliff and the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. They talk not of Bley at large but of a single one of Bley's early solos, on "All the Things You Are," from the Coleman Hawkins / Sonny Rollins album Sonny Meets Hawk! "All the Things You Are" is the very definition of a hoary chestnut, right up there with "Body & Soul" or "How High the Moon," but what Bley does with it is astounding. Sheet music exists. Metheny says to the Times that the solo has an "inevitability":
"His relationship to time," Mr. Metheny said, "is the best sort of pushing and pulling; wrestling with it and at the same time, phrase by phrase, making these interesting connections between bass and drums, making it seem like it's a little bit on top, and then now it's a little bit behind... But there's also this X factor," he continued. "It's the sense of each thing leading very naturally to the next thing. He's letting each idea go to its own natural conclusion... It just feels like, 'Why didn't anybody else do that before?'"
I was thinking of these ideas when reminded of Eric Harland's upcoming residency at SFJAZZ, and how the ideas of elasticity and inevitability couldn't be more apt in describing the master drummer. Harland plays in and around the beat, like a gynmast on a tightrope, and always lands back on his feet. I have waxed both rhapsodic and ridiculous about Harland before, but suffice it to say: the man is the most thrilling drummer in jazz right now.