Paul Bley and Scorpio

Paul Bley and Scorpio [1973]
Milestone M9046

Recorded during 1972 in New York, Paul Bley and Scorpio features Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on drums and percussion. The programme comprises an original by Bley, and three tunes each by Carla Bley and Annette Peacock…

Although these sessions took place only three years after Bley had begun his investigation of electronic instruments, he was to use electric keyboards on only four subsequent albums, and so in that sense this recording might reasonably be considered an example of his mature use of such instruments. By stacking the keyboards on top of one another, Bley was able to move between them (and their respective timbres) in real time, enabling him to draw on a startling variety of sounds over the passage of each performance. Fender-Rhodes and RMI electric pianos are combined with an ARP synthesiser and complemented by acoustic piano to complete Bley’s sound palette on this recording. Coupled with Altschul’s colourings (at the time he preferred to think of himself as an ‘instrumentalist’ rather than as a ‘drummer’, and to be sure, he’s one of jazz’s great percussive colourists) and the timbre of Holland’s (‘fuzz’ pedal) treated bass, Bley demonstrates his commitment to music as sound-sculpture. While some of the performances are clearly related to standard jazz procedures, others, such as Annette Peacock’s “Gestures Without A Plot” seem to be largely predicated by the timbral possibilities of the instruments and the musical possibilities of their interactions.

The synthesiser solo on Carla Bley’s “Syndrome” reveals Bley’s move to realms beyond the republic of equal temperament; passages comprising notes of indeterminate pitch, portamento and pitch bend effects, and episodes where the timbral complexity of the sounds disguises their relationship to any equally-tempered scale, all contribute to the ‘micro-tonal’ concept of some of this music. This had been an area that had fascinated Bley since his performances with Ornette Coleman, but was one unavailable to him as a pianist until his adoption of electronic instruments.

A complete marriage of Bley’s free jazz and avant-garde proclivities with his ideas of ‘music as sound’ is found on the album’s last track, a performance of Carla Bley’s “Ictus”. Almost all of the track’s four minute duration is taken up with very free improvising from the trio, much of it concerned with sounds and colours rather than with harmony or melodies. The interaction between the musicians is wonderful, Altschul in particular showing great adaptation, complementing and contrasting the music proposed by the bassist and keyboardist in an ongoing dialogue that features solo, duo and trio episodes. Following a passage of three-way collective improvisation late in the piece, Bley cues the melody, which is emphatically stated, and after which the final chord is allowed to ring for almost 10 seconds before the last few measures are reprised. Containing concise, spare melodies, timbrel variety, music outside the limits of equal temperament, free improvisation, group interaction, equality within the ensemble and harmonic openness, this track in some ways summarizes Bley’s artistic endeavours up to that point in his career, and signalled his willingness to allow all of the approaches he had used to coexist in single performances.