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. ]

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