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Paul Bley & Scorpio

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Album Review

The Milestone label released several of this artist's better records in which he flirts, indeed gets seriously involved, with electronic keyboards. This one is the album where he goes head over heels for the electric piano, and fans of jazz with that Fender Rhodes sound are going to want it, even if the photographer decided to make the normally dignified pianist look like Pinnochio in both of the shots. Paul Bley sits at a bank of keyboards here, giving forth a passage on acoustic, then some chirping synthesizer, then some electric piano, and so forth. There is also a rhythm section of drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Dave Holland, the same team that worked brilliantly in this period behind both Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. The repertoire is from this pianist's main briefcase, that is his own tunes and those of both Carla Bley and Annette Peacock. The former's kooky "King Korn" starts off with a romp, and it is a good thing since practically nothing at all happened in the previous five minutes of "Capricorn," perhaps not such an accurate portrait of the astrological sign of both James Brown and Richard Nixon. Nothing seems to be happening on quite a bit of this record, since Bley is deep into his playing slow quest. A pity the electric piano conveys so much less of his personal musical feel, not that the instrument is incapable of it, just that Bley doesn't deliver. He also seems distracted by the banks of available keyboards, and the aforementioned Carla Bley cover is a mess as a result. Holland appears to be listening to no one, but plays a lot of notes. Altschul plays stupidly, with a totally false sense of intensity. Another Carla Bley treatment opens the second side and at first seems a "Syndrome" of some change in approach, as harsher synthesizer sounds at first dominate. Soon it is the same sing-song, groovy electric piano swinging, but it sounds great, particularly the sizzling cymbals of Altschul. The maestro switches to a synthesizer tone that brings to mind a drunk whistling through a busted megaphone. It is cool, to be sure, but the unrelenting cymbal splashing and hectic walking bass now begin to seem obnoxious. A version of "A Gesture Without Plot" by Peacock assumes centerpiece status simply because of its ability to speak volumes about the awkwardness of this session; in every track except the ones like this where Bley is playing really, really slow, there is a sense that everyone is just rushing through things. Holland really comes through with an extraordinary bass solo on this, the longest piece of the album. This album, combined with the messy collaboration involving Jaco Pastorious, are the beginnings of a case that no one has recorded more bad covers of Carla Bley tunes than Paul Bley. Perhaps it's intentional: What better way to get back at an ex-wife?

Paul Bley & Scorpio, Paul Bley & Scorpio
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