Paul Bley… the synthesizer show and his place in history
As I continue to work on my second book, focused on 1970-71, Paul Bley’s synthesizer show (1970-72) has been on my mind. I just spoke about it with Barry Altschul, drummer in the 1972 edition (and who first played with Bley in the 60s). I’ve been listening to Bley’s two synthesizer recordings this week, and I’m also awaiting responses to some questions I posed to him.
I’ve thought about Paul Bley on a few occasions during the past three years, in part because several of the reviews about my CDs have referenced him as an influence; most often mentioned is Bley, Don Pullen, and Cecil Taylor. Ironically, while Pullen and Taylor have indeed been direct influences, the only recording by Bley that I had ever heard until last month was his early ‘70s ECM solo record. Returning to that record now, in the context of some of his trio recordings, I’m struck by what a pioneering influence Bley was on many others, particularly in the generation of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Pat Metheny, to name a few. These are the ones (plus Herbie Hancock, Art Tatum, and Keith Emerson) I started listening to late in high school and during college. What I now see is that although I may not have been directly influenced by Paul Bley, I was in fact listening, on a regular basis, to multiple refractions of Bley. It was like the wallpaper, just as Bud Powell’s influence was impressed on me swell before I actually heard him play.
Bley’s synthesizer recorded playing, on an Arp (one of the instruments I knew well in the mid-70s), was unlike anybody else. In fact, when he began, there was really nobody to imitate. When he received his first Moog, the idea of the system being a keyboard performance instrument was new. When Bley began working with synthesizers, first in public in 1969, his approach was different in kind from the others who began playing the Moog: most notably Richard Teitelbaum, Wendy Carlos, and Keith Emerson. Sun Ra started playing a synthesizer whose sounds were largely determined by the manufacturer, the Mini-Moog, in 1970; his performances with the Clavioline (1947), and the pre-Fender Rhodes electric piano (1954), were highly imaginative and unprecedented. Listening closely to Bley’s work, one hears a keyboard transformed into a sometimes microtonal, atonal, and portamento-filled instrument (in part, think Ornette Coleman), and other times simply funky and rocking. In both cases, comparisons with Corea’s and Metheny’s subsequent choice of synthesizer sounds and articulations are gain a context.
More broadly, Bley was way out front, back in the mid-1950s, when he considered how one could improvise freely, without chord changes, treating chords in a non-harmonic manner. It was Bley who hired a young new bassist, Charlie Haden, for an extended gig during that period, at the Hillcrest Lounge in Los Angeles. Haden brought along his friend, Don Cherry, and tagging along with Cherry was his friend… Ornette Coleman. The band that formed, with Billy Higgins on drums, soon moved to New York without Bley, to become Ornette’s famous quartet that shook the New York jazz world, while at the Five Spot. The rest is history. This is not at all to say that Ornette wouldn’t have happened without the Hillcrest; he was already very much happening, but things might well have played out differently. Ornette had, of course, already recorded his first record, with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins (Something Else!) and he was becoming known among musicians around Los Angeles.
Bley’s place in the history of open improvisation, and why he seems so rarely mentioned in jazz histories is something I will be taking up in my second book. I have ideas about that, which I’m in the process of exploring, as I consider the alternately interconnected and parallel musical worlds within New York City during Bley’s synthesizer band period. I’d certainly like to hear your ideas… feel free to comment here or write.