In my twenties I used to ask myself this question a lot. Who, in jazz, is doing the thing I want to do most? Paul Bley was that person. He was quietly revolutionary, he did not claim to represent any social group or political movement, he worked a lot, he had played with everyone. And he was not famous enough. He was hilariously cantankerous in interviews, appeared to me to be admired rather than adored. He was my idol.
I never met him or even saw him play, but I know his music intimately, backwards, what I have heard, which is a mere handful of gold dust in his huge recorded output. It has the tragieconomy of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, an occasional Appalacian swing, a lyrical pathos shot through with intervals and edges. When I hear his music I think of a blackbird on the early morning lawn, head cocked listening for worms. When I listen to his music I think of what I would like people to think of when they think of me. He listened hard, to his band mates, to himself; he was never afraid to stop. I have a CD where he plays a chord, lets it ring, puts the perfect soft note on top like a ghostly cherry on a cake, and let’s it hang so long that it dies, as it were, in his arms, strings reduced to a kaleidoscopic haze of simmering buzziness….and then on with the next idea.
He said don’t practice, practice makes perfect, imperfect is better. He said don’t listen to my records. He played with Sonny Rollins and out-weirded him. He wanted to be “the slowest piano player in the world” at a time when the competition for that title was, as ever with jazz, at an all time low. He said don’t make a record that is already in the shops, and then proceeded to do exactly that through the eighties and nineties, album upon album, all with moments of greatness sprinkled unpredictably around. He made fat chords out of thin notes.
He seemed to know about everything, he contradicted himself (see above), but he made you wonder if he was right or not, if he was good or not. The only real way you could ever tell was to listen. There was nowhere to hide. There is nowhere. RIP Paul Bley.