Paul Bley


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For Paul Bley to comment that this 1983 recording is the best collection of his music to emerge since 1961 is a provocative statement unless, knowing Bley, he's just kidding around. Since this is even more spaced-out than some of his famous "slow" recordings such as Ballads, does that mean he really wanted those recordings to be even more minimal than they were? The drummer not only featured but supposedly introduced on Sonor, George Cross McDonald, has a style that is so strange it makes the abstract impressionist school of Bley drummers such as Barry Altschul and Paul Motian sound like Motown backbeaters. And for this recording, Bley dropped the bass entirely. Does that mean he wasn't satisfied with the playing of Gary Peacock, for example, on many of his earlier albums? If so, it arouses curiousity as to why Bley gave his bassists so much solo space, if he didn't like their playing.

All the pieces on Sonor are free improvisations, and again the comment by Bley begs the question of whether spontaneous composition is really his preferred mode of operation. He certainly has crossed the line many a time in his interpretations of tunes at live performances, and even listeners familiar with his style might not be able to tell if a given performance is completely improvised or a reflection on a written theme. Listening to Sonor, a track such as "Speed" sounds like a rapidly executed, confusing jazz head such as "King Korn" by Carla Bley. The pianist executes a series of stunning runs here, utilizing intriguing voicings and generally sounding like he could play anything he wanted to on the piano. McDonald truly drums in an odd manner here; the closest comparison might be some of the drum solos on Jandek records. In other words, McDonald doesn't sound like he knows how to play the drums, or at least not to backup a fast-paced piano solo.

Now, it would be a lot to assume that Bley would drag a total amateur into the studio with him, even given his strange sense of humor. According to the liner notes, this is a seasoned percussionist with decades of experience. It says McDonald has played with Neil Young, although it would be hard to imagine what from this album -- perhaps a game of hockey. It must be the only Bley record where the drummer either lacks a sense of swing or has done a masterful job of expunging any clue of this feel from his playing. For the most part McDonald goes for the pure sound of the drums, while avoiding rhythm almost entirely. Bley uses lots of space in the majority of the performances; McDonald sees this as an opportunity to play less, not more. On one level, the result is a Bley album which pushes a certain extreme of musical reasoning. Near the end of the first side, on "Joined," there is a marvelous section where Bley is adding sounds from inside the piano, muting the strings with his hands, the whole time showing how quickly he can move from idea to idea and how he absolutely is not bound to exploit each motif to the point of fatigue. The drummer taps around; even Lassie could have come up with a good accompaniment here, Bley's mood is so strong. There are not really that many moments like that on Sonor. The demanding listener may not forgive Bley for having tapped a vein of boredom, but perhaps this enigmatic jazz figure was trying to prove that there is no such thing.

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