Paul Bley Biography

10 November 1932, Montreal, Canada. Pianist Bley would merit a place in jazz history on the strength of his instincts as a talent scout alone. The legendary Ornette Coleman Quartet (with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins) made its earliest impact as four-fifths of Bley’s quintet. He encouraged the emergence of wife Carla Bley and Annette Peacock as composers, building his repertoire in the 60s and 70s around their tunes. He had Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius in his band when both were callow youths, and was the first to record them.

All of this, however, is of less significance than Bley’s own music, the earliest examples of which still seem entirely ‘modern’. For 50 years Bley has remained on the cutting edge of creative music, from bebop to free jazz and beyond. At the age of 20, he befriended and played with Charlie Parker. On New York’s 52nd Street, Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd regularly augmented Bley’s trio. Charles Mingus was responsible for initiating Bley’s recording career, and played bass on Introducing Paul Bley; Art Blakey was the drummer. Bley has always been drawn to the most creative players, and they to him. In the 60s, he put his stamp on every area of the new music. He played piano duets with Bill Evans inside George Russell’s orchestra, helped to set in motion an introspective, intellectual improvisatory music in the trios of Don Ellis and Jimmy Giuffre, and recorded the classic Footloose - these endeavours setting the scene for, for example, ECM Records’ development of a ‘chamber jazz’. Footloose!’s concentrated, quiet improvisation was counterbalanced by Bley’s ferocious quintet on Barrage, featuring Sun Ra saxophonist Marshall Allen. Albert Ayler and John Gilmore also played with Bley in 1964. At the decade’s end, Bley was playing Arp synthesizer and utilizing all the noise potential of electronics, and the drummers who passed through his group included Han Bennink and Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt. The common denominator through all these activities is Bley’s sense of form; his improvisations have the rightness and logic of composition.

Bley returned to acoustic music in the 70s - his bleak, haunting Open, To Love setting the direction for future work - and formed his own label, IAI (Improvising Artists, Inc.) donning the producer’s hat to record Sun Ra, Ran Blake, Marion Brown, Sam Rivers and others. Through the 80s and later decades, Bley issued a steady stream of albums, of consistently high quality, which proved that emotional expressiveness is not the exclusive preserve of the shouters and screamers. ‘Music’, Bley once said, ‘is the business of pain’, and he can wound the heart with his carefully chosen notes.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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