Paul Bley (1932-2016): A Tribute

It was with great sadness that I heard the news this morning of Canadian pianist Paul Bley’s death, aged 83.

Bley was, without question, one of the great improvising pianists of the modern age. A giant among jazz pianists, whose influence was far greater than many realise.

Paul’s family have released a statement which includes much factual information about his career and achievements, and which has been reproduced by the Jazz Times here >

Paul Bley was one of the foremost pioneers and promoters of the “free jazz” movement of the late fifties and sixties, playing with a veritable “who’s who” of jazz luminaries which included Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Mingus. Recalling those years he later wrote:

“I anticipated all the changes in jazz because they were all problematical things, that I was dealing with myself. In New York in the late ’50s, there were a lot of experiments being made on how to avoid playing popular standards and how to get improvising out of those constricting formats.”

Like his younger contemporaries Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley was an early adopter of electric instruments and synthesisers in the jazz world, before returning resolutely to the acoustic piano from the 1970s onwards.

His subsequent albums are a treasure trove, and alongside Keith Jarrett he has been one of the key influences on later generations of jazz pianists. Like many, I especially love his solo piano recordings for the ECM label. Here’s an exquisite sample of his improvising, from his seminal 1972 album for ECM, ‘Open, To Love’ :

Paul Bley may have reached the end of his personal “pianodao” – his journey with the piano and through life – but he leaves an extraordinary legacy of more than 100 recordings, and a generation of musicians forever in his debt.  Our musical landscape has been immeasurably enriched by his short time among us.

Here is something rather more sentimental, recorded with trumpet player Chet Baker in 1985, as we say goodbye to a legend:

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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