Friday 9 July 2010

time will tell: conversations with paul bley by norman meehan (Berkeley Hills Books, 2003)

I really enjoy Paul Bley’s playing from early recordings like Footloose and Closer to his later solo work. There is openness, accessibility and originality to his playing that is his own. time will tell: conversations with paul bley gives us an insight into the world view of an uncompromising artist. His opinions on jazz and improvising are boldly stated. He describes himself as “preaching American Iconoclasm”. In this respect he is like the philosopher Nietzsche, another iconoclast (very influential in America) and, like Nietzsche he often talks in aphorisms. Just as his music is “composition in real time”, his opinions seem thought through and thoroughly “composed”.

Working professionally from the age of 14, Paul Bley sought out and played with the giants of jazz – Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman. These characters were pugnacious like Bley himself, who describes epic on-stage musical battles between Titans such as Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins (“It was like a prize fight, and I was trying not to get hit by the blows that had gone astray”). The book is peppered with fascinating, often funny, anecdotes that shed light on their approach to jazz. It also has the best elucidation of Ornette’s approach that I have ever come across and detailed analysis of some of Paul’s landmark recordings.

For this blog entry, I’ve pulled out some quotes that I believe offer valuable, even useful, insights into jazz improvisation and the jazz life by a master improviser.

On improvisation, composition and performance

I don’t think musicians can study improvisation very well, but they can certainly study composition. (p.7)
Improvisation is composition in real time. (p.8)
When improvising you don’t have an opportunity to lose your train of thought. (p.8)
When improvising is done correctly it will sound like it was composed. (p.8)
Each of my recordings is an opus number . . . dictated by the year, month, day and hour it was recorded. (p.8)
The way to learning how to make music is to find an audience. Anything you learn by yourself in a private room is useless, because when you play for another human being there is feedback . . . The purpose of playing music is communication. (p.35)

There’s an argument here for completely avoiding improvisation in your practise regime. After all, wouldn’t the time spent playing along to Jamey Aebersold & Band in a Box be better spent transcribing and writing solos and compositions and developing the technical facility required to realise compositional ideas instantly? If the purpose of music is communication, the performance is what matters and this is perhaps the only time that true improvisation should take place.

On practising

The jazz world likes mistakes because you can hear the musicians correcting. In the classical world there is a willingness to rehearse pieces until they are perfect. How do you get to Carnegie hall? Practice. But that’s not the way to get a jazz reputation. The more daring you are as a jazz musician, the more engaged the listener is. (p.9)
The whole idea of getting it right first time is a jazz aesthetic. (p.9)
There is a basic advantage in not being able to play well, in that if your music is very simple then you are less likely to play bad notes. The more notes you play the more likely you are to play a lot of bad ones. By limiting your choices you improve the result of the music . . . (p.57)
A scale is an ugly thing and it’s a very bad discipline to expose yours ears to bad music in the name of technique. (p.57)

Like me, a lot of poor musicians will be heartened by the thought that “there is a basic advantage in not being able to play well.” I like Paul’s sense of humour – he was a child prodigy and probably had much of his piano technique sorted by the age of 14. That said, isn’t it a common complaint that many college educated jazz players sound too schooled? And that schooling can be the enemy of jazz? Put the word “daring” into context – the more practised you are, the more difficult it is to reach the outer edges of your technique. Alternatively, perhaps you can only really be daring if you only ever improvise in performance and otherwise steer clear of it. If you really believe that improvisation is instant composition, you’re going to eschew all of all those clichés you have picked up and just follow the logic of your musical ideas.

As for scales, they teach you to get around the instrument comfortably but perhaps they should be abandoned in favour of exercises and studies that at least sound beautiful (e.g. Bach, Kreuzer, Tristano).

On having a musical purpose

You can’t see where you are unless you are working 5 years ahead of yourself, looking back from where you are now. (p.13)
Bird said “I’m never here, I’m always there.” (p.13)
Paul Hindemith said you have to be able to see the whole thing in a single flash before you start to play. It doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from an idea you have before you play of what you would like to get done, and there is the whole piece before you play it. (p.15)

These ideas are obscure and difficult to grasp and, at this point, we may be in the rarefied world of the bona fide genius. That said I know from other experiences in life that the logic of a series of actions is only clear in hindsight: for example, I work to a strategy and objectives and I jettison both during their execution only for them to come back into focus at the end of the process – that’s what I was doing all along! I also know that it is possible to conceive of the outcome at the moment you embark on something; from my commercial experience this means being able to envisage a clear outcome to a project of creative endeavour at its inception. Surely with experience and discipline we may know in an instant how the seed of an idea may grow, blossom and bear fruit in the course of a few choruses? If I sit down and transcribe a Dexter Gordon solo, it has a formal perfection to it that makes it appear pre-conceived. Presumably, this is the same with traditional sculpture – Michelangelo could not edit the sculpture of David, only realise it or abandon it.

On being original

The code of ethics for being a player is not necessarily acceptable at the family table. (p.22)
Whatever it takes for you to play better is important enough for you to go after by any means required. That means lie, steal and cheat. It means putting your spouse out to work, getting them to sacrifice their life for you, if what you are attempting to accomplish is of use to whole group of people – an ethnic or geographic or philosophic group. (p.22)

Yes, I can just imagine the conversations over dinner . . .

On Bill Evans and the problem of tone

I’m an antagonist of Bill Evans, unlike most pianists who are devoted fans of his playing. If I go to a pianists house and there is a Bill Evans record playing while he is making coffee, my first thought is to open the window and chuck it out, for his sake, for her sake. (p.24)
So we are talking about tone. You see, the audience only responds to tone. It does not respond to intelligence, it does not respond to ideas, and ideas are the main premise of what I like to think I am doing. But the audience [ . . .] only responds to tone and sound. There are also people who respond to the tone and sounds of Luciano Pavorotti, or Yo Yo Ma. These tones and sounds are trance-like, hypnotic, and so the audience loses track of any intellectual engagement they may have had at the start of the performance, and are completely taken into this universe of sound, which hypnotise the listener into a different place. (p.24)
Bill’s work stopped at a crucial point, and yet we consider him a master. It was because his tone was so beautiful that he captivated people. (p.26)

Among Modern jazz fans, who hasn’t been seduced by the sound of Bill Evans, and isn’t it a great thing to have about the house when you are cooking, eating, drinking or doing the washing up? It doesn’t demand that you engage with it. But isn’t part of the enjoyment of music sensual as well as intellectual? This is a tricky one. Sonny Rollins’ tone is rough hewn and unsentimental (full on, no vibrato), Bill Evans’ is delicate and beautiful (crepescular, impressionistic like Ravel, Debussy, Satie). Is this a Great Schism? Are they mutually exclusively? Can you not enjoy both the sensual and intellectual in jazz? Hmmmm . . . What do you think?

Note that for all the apparent knocking of Bill Evans, Paul holds him in the highest regard and on George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age recording was horrified to find that Bill could play Paul Bley better than Paul Bley!

On moving and singing whilst playing

Lennie Tristano . . . said that if you are busy kicking your legs in the air and screaming while you play, you are putting your energy in places that are not exactly related to what you are trying to get done. So it is important to put all your energy into what is happening. And not just sing while you play, but make your playing “singing like”. (p.32)

Perhaps he has a point, but one lost on Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett, Glenn Gould. . .

Thanks to saxophonist Andy Pickett for introducing me to this fascinating book. If you don't have any Paul Bley recordings, please buy some. Here is one, Mr. Joy from the Turning Point record with Gary Peacock (bs) and Billy Elgart (dr), recorded in 1964:

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