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Solo In Mondsee

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Album Review

Fully 35 years after Open, to Love, Paul Bley's seminal solo piano recording for ECM (which stands as a watermark both in his own career and in the history of the label — i.e., unconsciously aiding Manfred Eicher in establishing its "sound"), the pianist returns to the label for another go at it on Solo in Mondsee. Recorded in Mondsee, Austria, in 2001, and not issued until Bley's 75th year, these numbered "Mondsee Variations" were played on a Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano, an instrument that is, like its player, in a class of its own. Bley moves through ten improvisations lasting between two and just under nine minutes each. His range of thought, instinct, and motion is staggering. In a little over 55 minutes, he combines melodic and abstract notions of jazz and blues (especially on "VII" for the latter), ghost traces of popular song from the 1930s to the present, various folk musics, contemporary classical ideas, and reflections on the art of improvisation itself. This set isn't about flash, nor is it about transcendence. It's about the investigation of space, and the arrangement of music within it. While Bley has recorded other solo albums in the last 35 years, none is more diverse and tender in its sparseness than this one. His sense of detail is also his sense of economy on the instrument, which is graceful and elegant, rarely simply "percussive." In this manner Bley is a poet of sound. He pushes a line only as far as the extension of his own "breath," as the late poet Charles Olson put it regarding written language. Where the writer felt compelled to use the "/" symbol as a way of creating a break, Bley is not so specific; he is not interested in being a celebrated "technician." He pushes the line in any way that suits the idea at hand, which in turns suggests others; he allows room for its reverberations and trace echoes to inform each following sound, creating song from silence, lyric from air. His vast knowledge of musical forms is never knotty or purely intellectual; there is a great deal of emotion put into — and coming out of — each and every piece; the harmonic reflections on "IV" and "V" are particularly beautiful in very different ways. There is a wall that writing about this music presents; there is only so much explaining to do, because there isn't a written language that can even hope to convey this except poetry itself, and even there, it falls short. For anyone who has ever wondered about Bley and his amazing 60-year career in jazz, or for anyone interested in either the piano or improvisation, this recording, like its predecessor, will mystify, delight, and satisfy in ways that cannot really be imagined until Solo in Mondsee is actually encountered.


Born: 10 November 1932 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Pianist Paul Bley, whose earliest recordings sound like Al Haig or Bud Powell, took the styles and techniques associated with Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans to new levels of creative experimentation, becoming an indispensable force in modern music by combining the best elements in bop and early modern jazz with extended free improvisation and procedural dynamics often found in 20th century chamber music. This approach places him in league with artists as diverse as Red Garland, Elmo...
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Solo In Mondsee, Paul Bley
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