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Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Inner ivories

Posted By on Wed, Apr 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Pianist Paul Bley, a gray eminence of the jazz avant-garde who played with Ornette Coleman in the ’50s before going on to make his mark as an introspective alternative to Cecil Taylor in the ’60s, is approaching his 70th year with enviable amounts of grace and energy. His new solo album, Basics, is a world away from the play-and-pause, gloomy beauty of his landmark solo ECM side Open, To Love (1972), with only one brief cut, “Early Alben,” recalling his earlier floating, shards-of-sound style. Still impressionistic, he’s developed a more fluid approach, which makes listening to the unaccompanied instrument seem like less work than it used to be. His probing comes across as less portentous now, encased in a lyrical flow of playful sensuality.

He sounds bluesier these days too, whether digging up the soulful root of one of Monk’s signature puzzle boxes (“Monk’s Mood”) or weaving free-associative variations on a child’s nyah-nyah song (“I Told You So”). This is solo piano for people who aren’t necessarily enamored of the form, tartly romantic and easily postmodern, but with huge deposits of genuine feeling.

Meanwhile, Sankt Gerold is a follow-up album to the Bley/Parker/Phillips Time Will Tell, with the trio recorded live in a monastery in the Austrian mountains (how very ECM). The mode is chamberish free improvisation, the momentum being passed among the three close listeners with ease, and each stepping forward now and then to make a dominant statement.

Bley and bassist Phillips seem very much at home moving between the delicate and the fierce — and saxophonist Parker, when not unburdening himself of some Roscoe Mitchell-like outburst of circular repetition, comes across as an astute colorist à la ’60s Wayne Shorter. Musically, one can’t complain, but the pervasive mood of doomy abstraction, even when leavened by some melodic Bley, is a bit less nourishing than Basics’ basic beauty.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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