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1 February 2010

Paul Bley - 'Open, to love' (ECM)

Paul Bley has made a few solo piano records and I admit that they are a guilty pleasure of mine. Though this is the only one I actually own, I would not pass up another were I to stumble across it at a fleamarket, swap meet, or secondhand record store. You see, I used to tinkle the ol' ivories myself a bit, back in the day, and I maintain a real soft spot for that instrument. I started playing piano when I was 7. Actually, I went to a Suzuki lesson when I was even younger but that didn't work. The teacher drew a smiley face on middle C; I was in a class with about 40 other students and we all took turns going up and playing middle C once. No thanks, mom! I said on the drive home and that was that; I later started studying with a an old nun named Sister Bernadette and you can be sure that was the "traditional" method. Anyway, I bring all of this up now because after 8 or 9 years of piano lessons I could just about bash my way through Rachmaninoff's 'Prelude in C# Minor', but when it came to actually playing something interesting or evocative, sorry, no way. Thus my interest in solo piano records by people like Bley, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Cecil Taylor. Additionally, I just love the way solo piano sounds on vinyl - when you can really crank it up and hear all sorts of air in the room, and the highs just scream out of my Ortofon cartridge. Now, Bley in particular is the other end of the spectrum from Taylor; he's slow, sparse, and a major bummer. This is downer music of the highest variety. It's hard to imagine that you could want to slit your wrists by listening to a guy play piano for 40 minutes, particularly in that abstract ECM way, but give this a listen if you don't believe me. Even when he gets into more rolling songforms like 'Ida Lupino', there's just enough hesitation to inflict some real soulpain. This track is a killer because of the way he accents the tune - it's definitely got the depressed lounge feel (more than any of the others on here) which you can thank his ex-wife Carla for cause she wrote it - but Paul's grace notes and embellishments are what makes this track so amazing. Well, that and I think I can hear him humming as he plays, Glenn Gould style. Three of these tracks are written by his ex-wife and two by Annette Peacock; however, he makes it all his own. The title of the album and track 'Open, to love' emphasises the isolation felt here - a divorced man, playing piano alone in a room in Norway. You can only imagine the Helvetica font and Scandinavian design to maximise the cultural stereotypes we have about these things. I listen to this record when I want a downer, sure, but it's not angry or bitter bad vibes at all. Instead, it's music of resignation. Insecurity, trepidation, and fear also play a part. Bley doesn't try to impress by playing fast or dazzling you with crazy tone clusters, cause I guess he did all that on his 60's records. This is more like the Steely Dan of avant-jazz; an older, calculated performance inspired by disappointment instead of energy.

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