Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The BYG/Actuel Series, Part The First: Paul Bley - RAMBLIN' (Actuel 13)

This is the first in a hopefully eventually complete series of posts devoted to the discography of the amazing French avant-garde jazz/out-rock label BYG/Actuel. As befitting the unruly and disruptive nature of that roster’s collective of searching souls, I’m going to tackle this endeavor not in chronological fashion, but instead with a non-liner approach that I hope will provide an appealing and accurate historical landscape in which to appreciate this massive and still thrilling group of recordings. We start with Actuel 13, Paul Bley’s RAMBLIN'.

I’m not the first to say it, but Paul Bley is a prolific dude. Jazz pianists are often noted for their aptitude at clogging bins with a seemingly endless stream of releases, often with slight variance of personnel, and in addition for zealously examining/interpreting standards in the also seemingly endless pursuit of perfection in the elevation of form as content. Thing is, Bley is quite familiar with both of those modes of operation (thank you very much), but he’s also had other (bigger) (tastier) fish to fry. And quite frankly, I find myself stumped that the guy isn’t held in higher importance when the subject turns to jazz history. Bley’s playing life has spanned well over half a century and includes work with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre and a slew of lesser known but equally important figures from what can be roughly categorized as the free/avant era. He was a member of the Jazz Composers Guild, a group that kick started the legendary October Revolution in Jazz back in 1964, along with his then wife Carla, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra (amongst others).

The Jazz Compsers Guild

Possibly because he is a pianist that seems to prefer working in trios with advanced yet essentially accessible rhythm sections, Bley has indeed chalked up quite a discography, particularly post 1980, when European labels started getting their hooks into him, sending his list of credits into the stratosphere. All that said, the man still has a (relatively) tidy number of essential recordings, quite a few from the earlier days of his career, and RAMBLIN’ from 1966 is part of that group. In the heavy ranks of the BYG/Actuel roster, a group that includes some of the most uncompromising sets of wailing freedom to ever see commercial release, this slab is often given short shrift by (over)demanding power mongers. But Bley’s never been a scorcher, so slighting him on that count basically lacks a component of insight into just what makes the guy’s music resonate so mightily. RAMBLIN’ does a great job of aural portraiture, showing the pianist subtly straining against an essentially traditional melodic framework in his own playing while interacting with a very lively pair of rhythmic improvisers in bassist Mark Levinson and drummer Barry Altschul. The collective stew can shift from meditative to rollicking to angular to dense in a short span, with the level of percussive/rhythmic abstraction calibrated so that the music never totally loses its loose handle on piano trio classicism. And yet the level of intuitive interplay can be simply striking: on “Both”, the album’s thorny and complex first track, Bley maneuvers shrewdly between tough clusters of notes and periods of relative calm and (perceived) inactivity, leaving his fellow players to gradually build a slow-burn rhythmic back-and-forth that culminates in an explosive percussive display from Altschul. It’s a powerful opening, serving well as a statement of principles for the notably varied sounds that lay ahead. It was composed by Annette Peacock, his partner at the time of this recording, as was the following cut “Albert’s Love Theme”, which provides an extended foray into the minimal sensibility that Bley would expand upon at length in parts of his ‘70s discography.

Paul Bley and Gary Peacock

Certainly sparse, “Albert’s” still holds moments of insistent movement, moments that later efforts sometimes lacked, not necessarily to their detriment. Plus, the cut features some of the most un-brushlike brush work that I’ve ever enjoyed, and Levinson’s bass playing sounds like a giant rubber band being plucked by a love-drunk satyr. Sexy. Carla Bley’s wonderful tune “Ida Lupino” is also given a brilliant examination, the music hovering between a dark tension and an unruly prettiness. If, like their US counterpart ESP Disk, Actuel had elected to release 45 RPM singles, then “Ida” would have been a perfect candidate for the honor. And hell, they could’ve stuffed the diamond-tough classic-trio hyperactivity of the LP’s title track (an Ornette piece) onto the flip side for good measure. Its jagged momentum is quite enticing. “Touching”, another Peacock composition, features a return to spacious, contemplative playing, and the idea really seems to be the opposite of trad-motion. At times the sound just sort of hangs in place, as thick as cold peanut butter. This might bother some ears, but I like the hazy aural density that it conjures just fine. The pianist’s own tune “Mazatalon” closes out the record, with Bley’s thorny up-tempo melodic sense weaving through Levinson and Altschul’s typically strong rhythmic fabric. So, in something reminiscent of a nutshell, RAMBLIN’ is a record of peaks and valleys, with much time devoted to developing fresh variations on classic point A to B movement coupled with excursions into a studied but less familiar minimal approach. These ups and downs come together to form a fine whole. There are still many other sides to the multi-faceted work of this top-flight improviser left for examination, his pair for ESP Disk, numerous ECM releases and the Improvising Artists work in particular, but I feel secure in my prediction that this record, an expansive, disciplined and ultimately concise document of fine rewards, will rank as one of his best.

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