Paul Bley, CM (born November 10, 1932), is a pianist known for his contributions to the free jazz movement of the 1960s as well as his innovations and influence on trio playing. Bley has been a long-time resident of the United States. His music characteristically features strong senses both of melodic voicing and space.
Paul Bley was born in Montreal, Canada; his adoptive parents were Betty Marcovitch, an immigrant from Romania, and Joe Bley, owner of an embroidery factory.
In the 1950s Bley founded the Jazz Workshop in Montreal, performing on piano and recording with be-bop alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. He also performed with tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Ben Webster at that time. In 1953 he conducted for bassist Charles Mingus on the Charles Mingus and His Orchestra album. That same year Mingus produced the Introducing Paul Bley album with Mingus and drummer Art Blakey. In 1960 Bley recorded on piano with the Charles Mingus Group.
In 1958, he hired young avant garde musicians Don Cherry, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins to play at the Hillcrest Club in California.
In the early 1960s he was part of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, with Giuffre on clarinet, and bassist Steve Swallow. The quiet understatement of this music made it possible to overlook its degree of innovation, as well as its repertoire introducing compositions by his ex-wife, pianist and organist Carla Bley. The group's music moved towards free improvisation based on close empathy.
During the same period Bley was touring and recording with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, which culminated with the RCA Victor album Sonny Meets Hawk! with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
In 1964 Bley was instrumental in the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild, a co-operative organization which brought together many free jazz musicians in New York: Roswell Rudd, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Carla Bley, Michael Mantler, Sun Ra, and others. The guild organized weekly concerts and created a forum for the "jazz revolution" of 1964.
Bley had long been interested in expanding the palette of his music using unconventional sounds (such as playing directly on the piano-strings). It was therefore consistent that he took an interest in new electronic possibilities appearing in the late 1960s. He pioneered the use of Moog synthesizers, performing with them before an audience for the first time at Philharmonic Hall in New York City on December 26, 1969. This "Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show" performance, a group with Annette Peacock, who had written much of Bley's personal repertoire since 1964, was followed by her playing on the recordings Dual Unity (released under the name "Annette & Paul Bley") and Improvisie, a French release of two extended improvisiational tracks with the trio of Paul on melodic electric piano and modulated synthesizer supporting Annette Peacock's remarkable tonal experiments singing through what sounds to be a Maestro (Tom Oberheim designed) Ring Modulator, and percussion by Dutch free jazz drummer Han Bennink, who had also appeared on part of Dual Unity.
Subsequently Bley returned to a predominant focus on the piano itself.
During the 1970s, Bley, in partnership with videographer Carol Goss, was responsible for an important multi-media initiative, Improvising Artists, which issued LPs and videos documenting the solo piano recordings by Sun Ra and other works of free jazz with Giuffre, Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, Lester Bowie, John Gilmore, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Steve Lacy and others. Bley and Goss are credited in a Billboard Magazine cover story with the first "music video" as a result of the recorded and live performance collaborations they produced with jazz musicians and video artists.
Bley was featured in the 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound, in which he performs and discusses the history of his music.
In the 1990s, Bley joined the faculty of the New England Music Conservatory, however he no longer teaches there. Musicians of note Satoko Fujii and Yitzhak Yedid have studied with Bley at NEC.
Bley has continued to tour internationally and record prodigiously, with well over a hundred CDs released. In 1999 his autobiography, Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz, was published. In 2003 Time Will Tell: Conversations with Paul Bley was published. In 2004 Paul Bley: la logica del caso (Paul Bley: The Logic of Chance) was published in Italian. In 2008, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
With Don Ellis1961: Out of Nowhere (Candid, 1988)
1962: Essence (Pacific Jazz)
With Jimmy Giuffre and Steve Swallow1961: The Jimmy Giuffre 3 – Fusion (Verve)
1961: The Jimmy Giuffre 3 – Thesis (Verve; remixed re-release by ECM together with Fusion, 1992)
1961: Jimmy Giuffre Trio Live in Europe 1961 (Raretone, 1984)
1961: Emphasis, Stuttgart 1961 (hatART, 1993)
1961: Flight, Bremen 1961 (hatART, 1993)
1962: Free Fall (Columbia)
1989: The Life of a Trio (2 volumes, Owl)
1992: Fly Away Little Bird (Owl)
1993: Conversations with a Goose (Soul Note, 1996)
With Sonny Rollins1963: Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA Victor)
1963: Tokyo 1963 (Rare Live Recordings)
With Marion Brown1974: Sweet Earth Flying (Impulse!)
With Charlie Haden1989: The Montreal Tapes: with Paul Bley and Paul Motian (Verve)
With Lee Konitz1997: Out of Nowhere (SteepleChase)
With John Surman1991: Adventure Playground (ECM)
With Andreas Willers2001: In the North (Between the Lines)