By Devon Wendell
Paul Bley, who passed away at the age of 83 on Sunday, January 3, was always different. His polytonal approach to the piano stood out from the flocks of imitators copying Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, and Herbie Hancock. There was this amazing dissonance to his playing that reminded me of Bud Powell but only in parts.
I first heard Bley on the album Sonny Meets Hawk, which featured Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins in a beautifully haunting saxophone duel session in 1963. Bley stood out just as much as Sonny or Hawkins. I can still hear those distinct musical choices of his on the album’s rendition of “Just Friends”.
Soon after that musical encounter, I heard Bley on Don Ellis’ record Out Of Nowhere and I was hooked from there. Bley made 85 albums as a leader from 1953-2008. Bley was also at the forefront of the avant-garde movement of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman. But he was so much more than a “free-jazz” player. Bley’s bebop roots were firmly planted when he was part of the Jazz Workshop in Montreal in the early ‘50s. He got to record with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey and you could hear those influences in much of his prolific catalogue.
I remember Bley playing at The Village Vanguard in New York. I was aware that I was witnessing true greatness before my eyes whenever I’d see him play. He was also very conversant about his craft and influences like many of my musical idols that I was lucky enough to meet from that generation.
Bley’s experimental phase with electronic instruments in the late ‘60s on The Paul Bley Synthesizer Show was both extraordinary and ahead of its time. At this time he was collaborating with his then wife Annette Peacock. Bley used Moog synthesizers with true originality and virtuosity.
Bley forever changed my perception of jazz piano and synthesizers. That’s the magic of jazz; each individual forces you to look at the same room but from a completely different perspective. This takes more than talent, it requires magic. And so I say rest in peace to a true magician.