Paul Bley

Hands On

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Besides Paul Bley's usual philosophizing in the liner notes (this time with Down Beat writer Kirby Dean) -- or should I say illustrating his sophistry philosophically -- this solo piano set, played on a Bösendorfer Imperial piano, is one of Bley's most intimate and moving in the last 20 years. Playing a program consisting entirely of his own material, the pianist shows listeners how it's done without repeating himself. There are few others -- among the living -- who practice the art of jazz pianistically who can make this claim: Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Ran Blake, Misha Mengelberg, Marilyn Crispell, Matthew Shipp, and Irène Schweizer are the only ones who come to mind besides Bley. Many of his styles are present here, and some new methodologies he's brought to light in the last few years, but his most unsettling trademark, the one that makes each of his solo compositions and improvisations into works of art, is his use of space. The first three tracks here, "Remembering," "Points," and "Rain Dance," are all meditations on space and harmonic reductions -- how to reduce any melodic idea, no matter how elaborate, by using newly shaped or architecturally altered chords created only from scalar essences. Bley then uses the spatial relationships between these elementals in a melody to create a harmonic bridge that opens up the music from the inside in order to allow more space to flow not only between chords, where tonal possibilities assert themselves as melodic touchstones, but right hand runs that emphasize contrapuntal melodic ideas. Another Bley trademark is his use of understatement that creates dynamics within an improvisation. This is displayed elegantly in "Three Fifth," where thirds and fifths alternate with one another in shifting meters and time signatures. The layered triadic chords and languid attendant trills and single-note runs that flow into one another do so without force until halfway through the piece's 12-and-a-half minutes, where a glissandi set of fifths takes on a near operatic drama and the ensuing right-handed solo moves through eighths and sixteenths like water pouring from a glass, with the emotional resonance of romantic afterglow. There is no ice here, only blue fire. Hands On reveals Paul Bley as an archetype -- an improvising jazz pianist who serves the larger model of an artist who meditates upon his work actively, restlessly, and relentlessly, seeking its core, until that work exhausts itself and gives way to become, finally, a work of art, original and unrepeatable.

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