Circles, issued on Fantasy's jazz imprint, reissues two Milestone recordings, Paul Bley's Synthesizer Show from 1971, andPaul Bley & Scorpio from 1972 (minus one track, "Mr. Joy," the opening cut from the former). Bley plays the ARP 2600 synthesizer as well as acoustic, RMI, and Fender Rhodes pianos on both outings. Bley's intention with Synthesizer Show was, according to Michael Cuscuna in his original liner notes to the first album, to use the synthesizer as an improvising instrument. In the company of three separate rhythm sections -- including one with Frank Tusa and Bob Moses -- Bley goes about his tentative, cryptic, and pointillistic explorations in an angular, cryptic, and restrained way. Part of this is because for all the synth's exploratory sonic capabilities, the ARP 2600 allowed only one note to be played at a time. Chords were executed courtesy of other keyboards and overdubbing. But this is no mere fusion record; there is only one funky, groove-oriented piece here, and that one feels more like a hard boppish piece of soul-jazz. This is, in the truest sense of the word, an avant-jazz outing, with the free jazz end of the spectrum explored in the rest of the compositions here -- all written by Bley's wife at the time, Annette Peacock. The two most beautiful pieces are the mysterious, elliptical "Nothing Ever Was Anyway," and "Circles," with its ethereal, textural queries into tone and color. The latter album features the rhythm section of Dave Holland and Barry Altschul throughout and is, in some ways, even stranger than its predecessor -- though more immediately recognizable as a jazz outing. Bley and cohorts focus on everything from bebop and hard bop considerations to strutting, bluesed-out vanguard directions. Peacock wrote three tunes on the set, Carla Bley wrote three, and the pianist one. The nods to fusion are a bit more pronounced, but Bley understood he wasn't Miles and wasn't trying to strut long, rock-oriented grooves. When he hit the funk button it was to tough post-bop effect, as on Carla Bley's "King Korn," with its obvious nod to Thelonious Monk; it's full of free jazz dissonance and smoking rhythm interplay. Peacock's "Dreams," a solo showcase, is a meditative tonal inquiry. "Gesture Without Plot" is a lovely ballad with wide, nearly empty spaces with lovely chromatic vistas. The out-to-lunch "Ictus," by Carla, closes with its broken cadences and free improvisation giving the set a jarring nadir. What is most compelling is how well these records hold up, something Robert Doerschuk goes back to time and again in his engaging, authoritative, and wry liner notes for this package. These sound like open-ended inquires, these two albums, music that has yet to be answered or concluded. And that is exactly as it should be.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek