Lessons from the great Paul Bley

My fascination with pianist Paul Bley goes way back, and I was reminded of this while putting together a new video lesson for Pocket Jazz. If you haven’t yet checked out my free course on jazz improvisation called Pocket Jazz, you should. For only your name and email, you can get the entire course for free.  

Go to www.pocket-jazz.com

The lesson I posted today was a piece of my interview with bassist Steve Swallow who played with Paul for a long time. 

Steve described his very first gig with Paul. Steve was a 19-year old talented player, but he had never encountered anyone quite like 30 year-old Paul Bley.

Bley pursued music like an astronaut exploring a far-off world, except that the astronaut didn’t carry a flight plan, but knew he’d figure it out as he went. 

I was always attracted to that adventurism and to the idea of figuring out how to land as you fall.

“If music is conversation then questions will come up because in conversation there are many questions. Questions lead to answers, which lead to more questions. That is what makes music continue: the questions and their answers.”

-Paul Bley

Bley’s album, When Will The Blues Leave is a masterclass in improvisational creativity within group interaction:

While in college, I won a National Endowment of the Art grant to study with the great trombonist Frank Rossolino. After Frank lost his life the fall before our summer study was scheduled, I had to find plan B.

I resubmitted my grant application, and this time, I proposed studying with Paul Bley. I was told, however, that the Endowment board felt it was too much of a stretch for a trombone player to study with someone they considered an avant-garde pianist. So I ended up studying for the summer with trombonist George Lewis.

In Steve’s interview, he talked about the life-changing influence made on him from that first gig with Paul. Listen to the 3-minute clip in Pocket Jazz to hear Steve recount that Paul gave him no idea prior to the gig what they would play. There was no set list. Paul himself, probably had very little idea what they would play. 

Here are a few quotes I jotted down from Steve on the influence that night had on him as Paul was exploring the possibilities of playing without pre-determined structures:

“My relationship to probability changed significantly for the rest of my life.”

“My tolerance for uncertainty increased boundlessly.”

“My delight at the play of chance and randomness in life increased.”

“It was not that I changed but that my perception of the world around me changed.”

“What his playing did was to open up vast vistas of possibility for me.” 

“It’s been a lifetime of bringing my technique up to [playing that free].”

Here is one of the tracks from Paul Bley I included in the lesson (there are almost 70 tracks for listening within the course.

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