Paul Bley - piano; Steve Swallow - bass; Barry Altschul - drums
Montreal-born pianist and free jazz pioneer Paul Bley enlivened the Friday afternoon program ("The New Thing in Jazz: A Study of the Avant Garde," MC'd by the eminent jazz critic Leonard Feather) with his superb trio featuring bassist Steve Swallow (who also appeared at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival with Stan Getz's band) and 22-year-old drummer Barry Altschul (who would later play in the early '70s with Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Anthony Braxton in the group Circle). Performing music from Bley's ESP Records release of the time, 1965's Closer (with all the compositions written by Bley's wife, pianist-composer Carla Bley), the innovative trio tweaked the Newport audience with their heady, experimental excursions into free jazz.
From the turbulent, herky-jerky "Start" to the off-kilter groove of "Sideways in Mexico" to the harsh torrents of notes issuing forth on "Batterie," this upstart triumvirate sets an aggressive tone from the outset. Swallow, who would switch to electric bass exclusively after joining the Gary Burton Quartet in 1967, flaunts a big woody tone and muscular attack throughout on his upright bass, while the flexible drummer Altschul shows and adeptness with both sticks and brushes (the latter demonstrated on "Batterie"). The subdued and rather thoughtful rubato piece "Violin," full of gentle, lyrical excursions on the keyboard by Bley, is a welcome change of pace in their frenetic set. Switching gears once again, they close out their set with the disciplined stop-time vehicle "Crossroads," which is underscored by Altschul's furious brushwork and characterized by Bley's cascading single note playing.
An influential artist with a prodigious output, Bley has recorded nearly 100 albums as a leader since his 1953 debut, Introducing Paul Bley, recorded as a 21-year-old in a trio with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Art Blakey for Mingus' Debut label. Born in Montreal, Canada on November 10, 1932, he studied violin at age five before begin pianist studies at age eight, later earning his diploma at the McGill Conservatorium at age 11. By age 17, he began working at the Alberta Lounge as Oscar Peterson's replacement. In 1960, he moved the New York to continue his music studies at the Juilliard School. During this stint at Juilliard, he also sat in at jazz clubs with the likes of trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Donald Byrd, saxophonists Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, and drummer Art Taylor.
Bley moved to California in 1957 and landed a steady engagement at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles, where he gigged with such likeminded young musical renegades as saxophonist Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins. He returned to New York in 1959 and began interacting with cutting edge musicians there, including multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk, composer-bandleader George Russell, trumpeter-bandleader Don Ellis, bassists Gary Peacock and Steve Swallow, and multi-reedman Jimmy Giuffre.
In 1961, Bley made his first visit to Europe and two years later toured Japan with Sonny Rollins, also recording on the 1963 landmark encounter Sonny Meets Hawk! (with tenor sax elder Coleman Hawkins). Through the '60s he collaborated with free jazz saxophonists Albert Ayler and longtime Sun Ra sidemen John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, drummer Milford Graves, trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Gary Peacock, and trumpeter Bill Dixon. Soon after he was divorced from Carla Bley in 1967, Paul Bley married composer and vocalist Annette Peacock. He experimented with electronics and synthesizers in the early '70s (including a 1974 session with bassist Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny, and drummer Bruce Ditmas). The '80s saw Bley engaging in recording projects with saxophonist John Surman, guitarists John Abercrombie, John Scofield and Bill Frisell, bassists Jesper Lundgaard, Red Mitchell, Ron McClure, and Bob Cranshaw, drummers George Cross MacDonald, Aage Tanggaard, Keith Copeland, and Billy Hart.
Throughout the '90s, Bley collaborated with various European improvising musicians while also releasing a series of solo piano recordings. Since 2000, he has recorded primarily for the Canadian label Justin Time, the most recent being 2008's solo outing, About Time. (Milkowski)