Everybody Get Footloose;
Or, Six Degrees of Paul Bley

Paul Bley
Savoy : 1964

PB, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; Pete La Roca, drums.

We’re pleased to present another stellar guest post from longtime friend of the site Ethan Iverson, of The Bad Plus. A reminder that Do The Math remains essential reading for any jazz fan, for Ethan’s wide-ranging interviews, surveys, and much more. So in honor of Paul Bley’s birthday this week, take it away, Ethan…

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Footloose! is the first mature Bley record as a leader. He told Bill Smith in an interview:

I was always the poorest player in every band and that situation existed for years. As a matter of fact I didn’t make a record that I could say, “check this one out,” until about 1962 or ‘63, which was the Savoy record with Pete La Roca and Steve Swallow. I think that record took ten or twelve years of listening and trying to play…

Because it was the first album with Bley at full power, it’s possible that Footloose! is Bley’s most influential recording. It certainly made a big impression on certain pianists the time: Most famously, Keith Jarrett has never denied his debt to Bley and Footloose! in particular. This natural progression is somewhat controversial. Insiders commonly snark that Jarrett should give Bley royalties, and perhaps Bley himself is a bit bitter about how Jarrett became such a superstar using some of the tools Bley invented. After hearing Jarrett’s 2000 free jazz release Inside Out, Bley joked to me that “Now, after all these years, Keith has finally figured out how to sound exactly like I did in 1964.”

I don’t agree! Bley and Jarrett are really different musicians; it’s impossible to mistake one for the other. But the assertion that Keith stole from Paul is more reasonable than a certain careless statement I overheard at party recently, that “Keith could do everything Bley did but better.” When he is on, Bley’s improvised phrases have a kind of surreal purity and effortlessness that no-one else can do better, including Jarrett.

In my recent interview, Jarrett said Footloose! was like “Sort of like Ahmad [Jamal] with certain kinds of drugs.” This initially surprising comparison makes sense when you consider how inside Steve Swallow and Pete La Roca Bley is on Footloose! Unlike many leaders of piano trios, Jamal, Bley, and Jarrett all want to get as close to the bass and drums as possible, even willing to “accompany” rather than always insisting on “being accompanied.”

Swallow was a familiar associate of Bley during this era. They were part of Jimmy Giuffre’s early-60’s trio, the same one that was so inspiring to the founder of ECM, Manfred Eicher. What an exciting time for these musicians! In the same week, they could first gig with the straight-ahead masters (Sonny Rollins for Bley, Art Farmer and Thelonious Monk for Swallow, who appears on the recently issued Monk disc Live at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival) and then meet each other in the studio to explode convention.

The inclusion of La Roca, however, is fairly unique in Bley’s discography. For all of his delightful idiosyncrasies, La Roca is at heart a straight-ahead drummer best known for powering hard bop Blue Note dates with leaders like Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, and Freddie Hubbard. The other drummers Bley went on to record with in the 60s — Paul Motian, Milford Graves, and, most notably, long-term associate Barry Altschul — would be just as happy or even happier playing free tempo as time. Not La Roca. There isn’t a track on Footloose! where he doesn’t start swinging hard in the improvising, even if the head suggests something freer.

Bley sounds good with a swinging drummer, and in a way it’s a shame that at some point he lost interest in hooking up with players as uncompromising as La Roca. (A rare exception are a couple of 80s dates with Billy Hart, who offers a similar kind of perspective on serious swing that La Roca does.) Of course, unlike many drummers so devoted to swing, La Roca and Hart are musicians who do appreciate free playing, which is why putting them in combination with Bley works.

In fact, some consider La Roca’s 1959 solo on “Minor Apprehension” on the Jackie McLean album New Soil to be the first free-form drum solo. That solo still has the power to shock. Also, both of La Roca’s albums as a leader from the 60’s are somewhat experimental affairs. The more familiar Basra on Blue Note uses Swallow, Joe Henderson, and Steve Kuhn for a solid “inside/outside” session. D:O! readers will probably be even more interested in a hypnotic quartet date on Douglas with John Gilmore, Chick Corea, and Walter Booker called Turkish Women at the Bath. From that date, “Bliss” shows Corea at his most spacious and Bley-influenced. (It would be hard to guess the pianist on this number as Chick Corea!)

Not just Jarrett and Corea but a whole generation of mostly caucasian post-1970 NYC jazz pianists checked out Footloose!: Richie Beirach, Joanne Brackeen, Jim McNeely, Marc Copland, Kenny Werner, Fred Hersch, etc., all seem to have made room for Paul Bley to hang at the same table that Bill Evans presides over. Bley’s peers Steve Kuhn and Denny Zeitlin seem to have paid attention, too. I suspect that not all these comparatively straight-ahead musicians paid the same kind of attention to more hardcore classic Bley albums like the ferocious Barrage or the minimalist Ballads. But since Footloose! is so swinging, it has always been interesting to just about everybody. Indeed, I believe that Bley’s influence crossed the color line with Geri Allen in the 80s and that now he is considered a resource for any curious musician regardless of background.

Speculation aside, Bley’s message is certainly interesting to me! When I was younger I tried to own every one of his records. This proved impossible — his discography was too vast and ultimately a bit repetitive — but I ended up knowing a lot about Paul Bley. I’ll never completely shake his profound influence on my worldview.

Footloose! has actually never been one of my personal favorites. If forced to choose when exiting the burning building, I’d leave that one behind while grabbing discs that have greater sentimental value: Ballads, Closer, Ramblin’, With Gary Peacock, Barrage, Diane, and, especially, the first Bley record I ever got, Hot.

Hot is a live 80s quartet date with John Scofield, Steve Swallow, and Barry Altschul. I obsessed over this record in a very serious way. What’s strange is that the tracklist on Hot is more or less identical to Footloose!, down to a magnificent themeless deconstruction of Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On” in duo with Swallow (on Footloose! it’s called “Cousins,” and on Hot it’s called “How Long.”) It’s like a bizarre temporal anomaly: Unlike everybody before me, I got Footloose! Mk.II instead of the original to study. When I finally chased down Mk. I, my first thought was, “Oh, I know all of this already.”

Anyway, the original Footloose! remains dolefully out of print, and because Keith Jarrett honorably references it in interviews, young pianists always want to check it out. Here’s a pair of tracks where you can hear the “proto-Keith.”

WHEN WILL THE BLUES LEAVE. Bley learned this song from the composer Ornette Coleman when his quintet at the Hillcrest Club in L.A. was Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. Stanley Crouch has often said that Bley is to Ornette the way that Bud Powell was to Charlie Parker, both finding a way to put the innovative alto sax language onto the keyboard. That’s true. Indeed, Bley and Bud are two of the greatest masters of “blowing” into the piano: they somehow make the big box sound like a wind instrument.

Bley would go on to play and record this quintessential “Hillcrest-era” Ornette blues many times. Here, both Swallow and Bley honor the 12-bar form, but it’s interesting that the piano solo seems modulated up a step from F to G by the beginning of the bass solo. It’s that free a harmonic situation! Bley’s phrases reference Monkish motivic development, the white hillbilly blues, and something he learned from Ornette, “erasure phrases,” where you negate the key and tempo with a fast atonal flurry: It’s a way to begin again, even in the middle of a solo.

KING KORN. Bley somehow ended up married to not just one but two major jazz composers. (Has anyone else of either sex managed this feat? Bley tells his side of the story in his biography Stopping Time.) Most of the non-standard tracks on all the greatest Bley albums are by either Carla Bley or Annette Peacock. The memorable “King Korn” is by Carla. It’s really just a little collection of classical cadences to get going: maybe these cadences are a little “korny.”

This piano solo shows how Bley can take his time, with lots of room to enjoy the bass and drums. Note how he finishes (at 2:14) with a pure Louis Armstrongish blues shout before the final abstracted classical “kadence.” There’s no set form, but Swallow and Bley listen closely to each other: the atmosphere isn’t really atonal, but “pan-tonal” or something like Ornette with Haden. Swallow’s brilliant abstract solo is arguably the most atonal moment. La Roca swings away, but — crucially! — is immediately ready to stop on a dime and return to the rubato head to take it home, something that few of his Blue Note peers would have managed as convincingly.

When I finally met Paul Bley a couple of years ago, I was about to go onstage with his old associate Charlie Haden. Bley was rather chilly at first handshake. These days he’s a famous contrarian, and I sensed I needed to not grovel but respond in kind. I leaned into him and told him, viciously, “I had all your records at one point. But you know what? I can’t play like you, and why would I want to? I gave all your records away when I was 24. I turned my back.”

Bley looked astonished, but then he grinned. “I’m glad you got rid of all my records, that’s what I tell all pianists to do.”

I responded, “Yeah…good. Well, recently I got some of your records, and I decided to love you again.”

Bley said, “That was a mistake. Get rid of my records.”

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Ethan is playing next week with his own swinging drummer of the old school. Those in and around New York City should definitely try to check out Iverson with Ben Street and Albert “Tootie” Heath down at Smalls. D:O is planning on making the Wednesday hit.

[ Spotted: Mandatory Attendance. A new, NYC-centric blog that answers the ever-lovin' question, "I wonder where the good jazz shows are at tonight." A much needed and convenient resource. ]

Discussion15 Comments Category guest posts, Paul Bley Tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

15 Responses to Everybody Get Footloose;
Or, Six Degrees of Paul Bley

  1. Was hoping this was going to be a ‘tracks from the forthcoming album’ post :p… seriously though, long story short; Ethan Iverson is the man, Paul Bley is a living legend, D:O and its readers continue to win all round. Continuous thanks! PS would love to see Keith Jarrett and co do another trio album along the lines of Inside Out and Always let Me Go… great stuff.

  2. Re: “the original Footloose! remains dolefully out of print”…Downtown Music Gallery lists stock on something titled “Complete Savoy Sessions 1962-63: Footloose/Floater/Syndrome” on CD.

  3. How marvellous–thanks! Might I put in a vote for “Sankt Gerold,” recorded with Evan Parker and Barre Phillips? Bley there, as so often, shares the space. I’m not sure Jarrett can do that!

  4. fantastic. Paul Bley = legend.

  5. wow, great. Concerning La Roca, do you think perhaps there was something unrealized there? I don’t know how he and Bley hooked up, but perhaps Bley saw the same potential that Coltrane saw in initially signing him up for his famous Jazz Gallery gigs in the early 60’s (which were, in essence, ‘tryouts’ for the classic quartet). Maybe if Coltrane or Bley had retained La Roca, he wouldn’t have become a lawyer!

    Also, I think more needs to be said about what happened, stylistically, between Bley’s debut (1953), where he sounded anything but modern, and Footloose. Bley modestly says he was ‘always the poorest player in every band’ until the early 60’s, but then why did Mingus bring him down from Montreal and offer him a date with himself and Blakey? That doesn’t exactly seem like the debut of an undeveloped (let alone POOR) musician. So what are we missing?

  6. This is a great recording which definitely deserves re-release, but I’m with jbull, I find “Sankt Gerold” to be Bley’s most enjoyable disc, likely because I’m such a rabid Evan Parker fan. The previous ECM trio release, “Time Will Tell” is also great. I’ll also offer my strangest find while shopping for CDs: One night in Borders I was going through a clearance bin, which had mostly worthless has-been pop and country recordings, when suddenly I found a copy of Bley’s Hat Hut CD “12 (+6) in a Row” for $4.99! Hmm, let’s see, should I buy this?….Yes!

    Thanks for another great post guys.

  7. Thanks, but I’ll keep my Bley albums. Ethan is actually just another obnoxious poser.

  8. Great post. Not sure where I got it online but someone had posted this record a while back (with an even cooler album cover, Bley in off-white cable- knit sweater, same pipe, from a different angle and taken outdoors with no exclamation point in the title.)

  9. Kimberly –
    Did you actually READ this post? Did you somehow miss that Ethan was loudly championing Bley’s work? Did the conceit of the last paragraph really fly that far over your head?

  10. The Bethlehem Public Library had the original vinyl release of this very fine recording. I spent a long time loving the Ornette and Carla Bley tracks and lamenting the floating, hipster, unfocused and meandering tracks by Bley.

  11. Lets not forget the great Paul Bley Record w Peacock, Paul Motian and the great John Gilmore brand of sheets of sound . It does not get much better that one.

  12. Sometimes I transcribe Bley’s lines, onto the saxophone – am I making a terrible mistake??

  13. Someone once asked if there is “any bad Paul Bley”… someone else responded “Keith Jarret”. To an extant, I would have to agree.

  14. Not sure I would entirely, but I do prefer Paul Bley’s playing in general for what it’s worth…

    I don’t know about ‘bad’ Paul Bley – there are some I prefer to others, but on the flipside, for me it doesn’t get much better than his playing on ‘Closer’… the ‘wired’-sounding quality of it seems to be because it was sped up though!(a bass player friend spotted that one whilst trying to play along with Ida Lupino, noticing it was a semitone/half-step higher than usual)

  15. One of my favorite solos ever is Paul Bley’s solo on “All the things you are” from “Sonny meets Hawk” on RCA.
    I totally agree with the Bley/Jarrett connection that you mention above, but I haven’t thought about it for a while.

    Despite enjoying a number of things that Jarrett has done over the years, I find his studiously straight-eighth style in the “Standards” trio to be a bit tiresome after a while, especially when the drummer is swinging his eighths (I think I like him better when the rhythm section is looser, for example on “Gnu High” by Kenny Wheeler or on some of his middle period stuff like the tune “Backhand”). Ironically, I’m realizing that, in addition to his classical background, he seems to have gotten that even-eighth thing from Bley, who I respect highly. So why do I find Bley’s even-eighth (and even 16ths) feel so charming on “When Will the Blues Leave”, but so tiring (after a while) when Jarrett does it with his “standards” trio? Perhaps because Bley, while basically being a “floater” (to name a tune on “Footloose”), manages to somehow “dig in” every once in a while. Or perhaps I don’t mind the floating quality of his rhythm because I go to Bley when I don’t want to hear straight-ahead swing ala Sonny Stitt or Sonny Clark. I guess the only thing that surprises me is how many people think Jarrett “swings”( which I interpret as meaning plays swing eighths), when he actually doesn’t. Jarrett’s eight-notes, like Bley’s, are almost as straight as you can possibly get while still being in the realm of jazz music. If they were any straighter, you’d be listening to Bach…or Lennie Tristano…

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