Saturday, March 03, 2012

Favorite albums: Ballads by Paul Bley

Ballads by Paul Bley
1967 - ECM 1010

Paul Bley - piano
Gary Peacock, Mark Levinson - bass
Barry Altschul - drums

Compositions by Annette Peacock

This is kind of a funny entry to this series. It has taken me a long time to come to fully appreciate this record. It's very open, very impressionistic, and offers few, ah, "conventional satisfactions"; each track is in broadly-paced free time,  harmonically ambiguous (not to say atonal), with little in the way of tension and release, and no explosive performances.  It's nobody's idea of a fist-pumping jazz record.

So, I've had it in my bins since the late 80's, and putting on every few years it's stayed kind of aloof, but it kept its hooks in, and eventually clicked. The record is more an environment than a conventional piece of music, and the perfect embodiment of pure improvised music, and of a certain player's space. 

Barry Altschul is one of the most urgent-sounding drummers ever- pushing even beyond Roy Haynes or Alan Dawson for the amount of forward momentum in his playing- and he manages to keep that quality through this spacious, non-climax-seeking record. There's also a very different type of free playing at work here than the familiar dense style of drummers like Sunny Murray or Rashied Ali, or Paul Motian's naive/primitive thing- Altschul seems to be among the first very polished free players.

Annette Peacock also has become one of my favorite composers for her work recorded by Bley- her bio is rather interesting as well. The compositions here are perfect for this record, meaning they don't immediately jump out and grab you as needing to be played again.

YouTube audio of "So Hard It Hurts" after the break:

Oh, and there's a review of the album which keeps getting referenced online, that I couldn't leave out for this clueless line:

[Altschul's solo on "So Hard It Hurts"] sounds very much like a showboat drum solo from a Buddy Rich-style player, just a touch more abstract, yet still building up to the big tom-tom finish.

Uh huh. That review is a good test of your character as a listener; it's mostly fair, I guess, but is replete with words like vapid, dour, background music, glum, pretentious; easy to latch onto and dismiss the music without giving it a fair listen. Don't do that.

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