Ballads, which really seems to make ballads out of ballads, has been considered both worthy of hanging on the museum wall alongside the other masterpieces and being accorded special merit as the jazz record most used for background music. Since no less a genius than the great French composer Erik Satie invented the concept of background music, this might not be such a contradiction or insult. Only the short "Circles" invites a real comparison with the piano music of Satie; elsewhere you're in extremely extended territory, Paul Bley's desire to play the slowest music in history meshing with a new style of rhythm section accompaniment that sounds like everything from tuning the drums to adjusting the drapes. In the case of drummer Barry Altschul, maybe it wasn't such a new style at all. His drum solo on "So Hard It Hurts," which it isn't, is nonetheless the loudest part of the entire record, the moment where the person using the record for background listening gets up and turns it down. It also sounds very much like a showboat drum solo from a Buddy Rich-style player, just a touch more abstract, yet still building up to the big tom-tom finish.
The bassists probe a bit further in their own solos, and probably feel they better, since they are often handed the solo spot after only a brief taste of Bley's piano improvising. Sometimes these sections seem shorter than they are, strangely enough, because even though they are moving extremely slowly, the pianist doesn't appear to be doing much at all. He may have figured out a way to whittle each phrase he is going to play down to its shortest form, allowing the other players ample room to comment. All this space, in fact, means a player such as Altschul has lots of room, his expressive command at the drum kit impressive to be sure. The bassists also develop ideas as if each note required a brief hang from the side of a chasm. What all this adds up to, when not shoved to the background of the listener's psyche, is a beautiful sound indeed, this album being one of several that helped establish the entire concept of the divine "ECM sound," despite actually being one of Bley's own productions.
It also sounds vapid, just as the musicians, except for a smiling Altschul, look dour in the back cover photograph. This doesn't mean that the music is vapid, or that these were dour people. It is just that this album, as a document, presents a glum outlook and the energy of a comforter that has finally been tossed off the bed at one in the afternoon. Bley's requirements for a sideman to tour Europe during this period were that the individual within 24 hours in a new town be able to locate a car, a place to stay, a girlfriend, and a source of drugs, so it is obvious these were people that had fun, too. Surely it was fun making this album, but it has not proven to be an album that is that much fun to really listen to. Perhaps the music's magic is marred by the excessive echo and pristine recording quality, or maybe the playing is simply pretentious. A decision can be made at the end of the recording, if the listener is still awake.