Paul Bley Trio - Closer [ESP-Disk - 2013]
This is one of ESP-DISK’s fiftieth anniversary remasters - and one which I arrive at with no previous knowledge or expectations. The name Paul Bley rings a bell, as does Steve Swallow, and one of the pieces is an Ornette Coleman composition (though, again, not one I recognise); but thats the extent of my knowledge here. So, we have Bley on piano, Swallow on bass and Barry Altschul on percussion; performing ten pieces in 1965, only three of which pass the three-minute mark. Rather than being headlong bursts of freneticism, these short works are actually concise, often unhurried and reserved, performances.
As I said above, most of the ten tracks are between two and three minutes in length, which is unusual for modern jazz. Indeed, there are quite a few pieces which are simply: “theme, short exploration, theme reprised”. The first track, “Ida Lupino” even dispenses with this “short exploration” and simply cycles the theme; building and falling with variations. But the overall playing can essentially be divided into two camps: twitchy, knotty pieces, or more languid, reflective ones. In both modes, the piano dominates - both in terms of playing and, alas, recording. Although “Closer” never tries to be thundering free jazz - though it does cook up a storm in places - a lot of the piano and drum work, in particular, features torrents of notes and strokes. Pieces like “Start” and “Crossroads” open with furious sections from Bley, but always with a firm sense of melody and rhythm: there’s a definite calculated restraint on display. On “Batterie”, this restraint is taken to extremes, with Bley’s discordant piano bursting in and out - almost as if the engineer was flicking the desk faders up and down. Where the trio’s restraint translates into more reflective states, the pieces often still maintain a “twitchy-ness”, a “wired-ness” - though parts of “Closer” (the track) achieve a kind of dreamy, “ambient” jazz. At the other extreme, the last piece, “Cartoon”, sounds indeed like a cartoon - with stop/start riffs and manic playing. Here, the greater energy and volume allow the drums to be properly heard; with the low-fidelity nature of the recordings finally working in the trio’s favour.
Whilst I like a fair amount of jazz, its not something I’m well-versed in; so I tend to find the freer side of things easier to digest. More than anything else, I tend to gravitate towards the rhythm section and in that respect, “Closer” isn’t too generous - Bley’s piano dominating affairs, even on headphones. The bass fares worst, often being felt more than heard; whilst the headphones reveal drums in the right channel and then echoing in the left channel… There are quite a few sections where Swallow and Altschul are allowed to run free as a duo (“Violin”, for example), but a more sympathetic recording would have been revealing. Swallow’s bass work is often essentially lost and thus hard to comment on; but Altschul’s drums, where given audio space, sound interesting indeed. Since this is a remastering, its quite intriguing as to what the original release sounded like..! This isn’t an album I imagine I’ll return to much - though this is more to do with my jazz interests than its quality - but I do admire its conciseness; a rare thing. The whole album carries a knotty quality, a twitching, rhythmic sensibility - a “funk” if you willMartin P