When you tell Paul Bley that he sounds more like a fan than one of the most acclaimed jazz originals of the last 50 years, he laughs. "Of course, I'm a Canadian - one continent removed." When you suggest that the Montreal-born pianist must travel to Europe to receive a near godlike reputation, he cracks up. "I think the expression is 'legend in his own mind.' "
And when you mention a 75th birthday coming in November, he says, "Oh, is this the 75th anniversary of ECM Records?" referring to the prestigious Munich-based label that's just released his stunning, suite-like album of improvisations, Solo in Mondsee. "Or do I seem too modest? You know, egomania always hides in the realm of modesty."
But facts are facts: Bley has an amazing track record embracing hundreds of albums and collaborations with major figures such as Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Lester Young, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, not to mention former wives Carla Bley and Annette Peacock (whose unique compositional ideas he encouraged). He's contributed to most of the major changes in jazz since the 1950s, all the while going his own resolute route.
So when you ask him to look back on his storied career, the gregarious man speaking in a cool confidential voice from his farm in Cherry Valley, N.Y. (145 kilometres north of Woodstock), adds a caveat: "Now wait a minute, we got two or three decades before we look back at anything." Of course, being one of the great raconteurs in jazz, he's only too happy to oblige.
Pick a spot - say, the origins of his solo piano recordings - and Bley leaps in. In 1972 producer Manfred Eicher, who'd founded ECM just three years earlier, suggested a solo project to Bley, who replied that he didn't know whether he could pull it off. A couple of weeks later he was rehearsing a band and "instead of stopping at the written material that I was demonstrating, I started playing solo. It turned out to be two-thirds easier than anything else I had done (with a trio). The surprise was that all the possibilities in group playing were not relevant any longer.
"There are no givens in solo playing in jazz, whether it's Art Tatum or Duke Ellington or Cecil Taylor. It's wide open. It's what you want to make of it. Well, that's a very exciting place to be historically, when there's a window of opportunity without clear precedence."
The result was the hugely influential Open, To Love - a meditative work characterized by haunting reverberations in open spaces. Solo in Mondsee is being promoted as its sequel, although Bley has recorded a string of solo works for Montreal's Justin Time label (including 2004's Nothing to Declare) and various European outfits.
Paradoxically, Bley's liquid, clear acoustic piano sorties were influenced by his experiments in the late 1960s with the electric synthesizer; Bley was the first jazz musician to adopt an early prototype. "To me it was a watershed. Prior to that, there were a lot of things I would've liked solo piano recordings to be able to do - the long sustain, for instance. With a synthesizer you can play a chord, go get a coffee, and it's still ringing. Of course, the audience may not remain but the chord lingers on."
Which reminds him of debuting the synth, then prone to breakdowns, at the Village Vanguard, the legendary New York club owned by Max Gordon. "I sold Max a bill of goods, saying this was the greatest thing since Swiss cheese. So there I was, literally on the floor, with a flashlight in one hand and a microphone in the other, saying 'Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you'll bear with us, there's a bit of a technical problem here ...' Max told me three things at the end of that matinée. 'Get out. Stay out. And don't come back!' It wasn't easy to continue a career in electronics."
Then again Bley has never taken the easy route. In the late '50s, as the house pianist at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles, he hired Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, then unknowns pioneering "free jazz" - and eliciting mass audience walk-outs. He was in New York when Coleman and cohorts arrived for their historic 1959 gig at the Five Spot Café, taking Manhattan by storm.
"There was a lot of consternation and fear, because they shook the jazz world to its foundations. There was a tectonic shift literally overnight. People would stop me on Broadway and ask, 'Paul, what are these guys doing, what's going on?' The night Ornette finished the first set, I asked the bartender to dance. That's because the band that had played two nights before was Art Farmer and Benny Golson, who were bonafide wonderful jazz musicians at the top of their game, and now they sounded like a cover band at the Taft Hotel."
But then Bley has always been at home facing challenges, since he conducted sessions for volatile bassist Charles Mingus, who produced and played on his debut album, a trio with Art Blakey in 1953. "He'd have a so-called rehearsal, and I told him about the Montreal Jazz Workshop - which held open rehearsals for visiting jazz musicians - "and he said, 'You mean to say the audience will pay to hear you rehearse? That's not a bad idea.' "
Then there was the famous Monday night in 1961 at Birdland - the club named after Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, the heroin-addicted improvisational genius Bley had gingerly shepherded around Montreal during his tumultuous 1953 visit. The bill at Birdland featured Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, and the call had gone out that both were looking for new pianists.
"The call was imparted by an anonymous conga player. I didn't have money for admission, and the conga player actually paid for my ticket to get in. The first thing (fellow pianist) Herbie Hancock says is, 'Paul, which gig do you want?' I thought, 'Wow, what a gentleman.' I would never make that offer in those circumstances. I'd have been possessive, whatever. ...
"Now I had a dilemma: I had to come up with an answer, right then and there. Sonny had reached a bit of an impasse, because he was searching for a way to find Ornette (in his playing). What's that movie called, Desperately Seeking, uh, Ornette? That wasn't a problem for me, having been fortunate enough to run into Ornette in Los Angeles. So I thought, Miles is pretty much ready to proceed with or without me, because everybody loved that modal thing he was doing, that baby tone on the trumpet (as purveyed on Kind of Blue). So I thought I could be more help to Sonny than to Miles."
Rollins was "a giant who was doing physical things that stretched the horizons. We had a gig in Chicago, and at the matinée he played This Can't Be Love for 21/2 hours, and he turns to me and says, 'You got it!' And I said, 'Got what?!' So you can never play too long for me - you're going to drop before I do.
"When I started to take a solo I said to myself, 'Maybe I'd better not play everything I know in the first five minutes.' It was about husbanding your resources and dribbling them a little at a time, because you're going to be here a while!"
Bley says today's co-operative group sensibility - "We're all in the same task, to make the music equal and as good as possible" - is the opposite of yesteryear's intensely competitive spirit. Rollins "would set up situations that tested your ingenuity. It wasn't so much testing your musicality as it was of your common sense and ability to steer your own ship.
"For example, take the record date Sonny Meets Hawk (a classic from 1963, with the first tenor sax pioneer Coleman Hawkins): He said it's for the RCA studios on 24th St. at 7 o'clock on a Monday night. The band shows up but there was no Sonny Rollins. But there was with a message that the date was for Tuesday. Now this would happen for four nights in a row. Well, I got the 'message' after the first cancel, so I slipped
10 bucks to the RCA doorman and said, 'Call me when Sonny walks into the studio, I'm just down the street.' Finally Sonny shows up on Friday, I get the call, and I'm fresh and ready to go, whereas the other guys were hanging around in dread. It was all about out-foxing him."
A few weeks ago Bley was back at the Vanguard, playing a sold-out week with Gary Peacock (a member of Keith Jarrett's trio for 25 years) and Paul Motian (who defined modern trio drumming with Bill Evans from 1958 to 1961). The New York Times aptly characterized them as "obstinate and wily." A recording session is set for later this year, as is a solo concert to mark his 75 years.
Bley, the ultimate improviser, is organized. In the mid-1970s he formed a multi-media company, Improvising Artists Inc., with his third wife, Carol Goss, whom Billboard magazine once credited with creating the first music video. The information on his website (www.improvart.com) is copious, including access to a discography that runs over 220 pages. The National Library of Canada purchased his archives in 2001. His books - Stopping Time (1999, from Montreal's Véhicule Press), Time Will Tell (2003) and the Italian-language Paul Bley: La logica del caso (The Logic of Chance, 2004) - brim with jazz lore.
He compares improvising on stage to bull fighting. "The bull keeps you honest and so does the audience. That's one of the great things about playing live: If you're lingering a little too long the seats shuffle just a little more, and the electricity changes. The trick is to be ahead of the audience by a microsecond. Before the audience realizes you've taken a detour you've already re-routed yourself."
Bley is the consummate master of risk. But, he says, when you've done it as long as he has, "you can't really call it risk. I mean, I wish I could say, 'Ooh, it's so dangerous, I wonder if it's going to work out next time.' You develop a set of procedures to ameliorate the risk possibilities. You don't want the audience to be faced with the possibility of a performance that's not your peak. So you desperately find ways to guarantee whatever it is you're trying to get done without being repetitive and sounding like one of your albums. There's a whole philosophical basis for what you do. And that could be the subject of my fourth book."
Paul Bley's Solo in Mondsee is in stores now.