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Paul Bley Trio: Darkly Winsome Jazz

Vibrant pianist Paul Bley has given much to the idea that outré jazz can be stunningly inside. A prolific yet low-lying innovator with to-die-for credits — he played with saxophonists Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Rollins, and in 1953 made his debut as a bandleader in a trio featuring bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Art Blakey — he blueprinted a concept of the avant-garde that looked to romantic rumination over visceral, atonal tinkering.

Beginning in the late '50s, a good deal of that allure came from the compositions of Bley's then-wife, a composer and pianist born Carla Borg who, using the Bley surname, would become an enduring jazz progressive in her own right. Paul Bley urged her to write, and his groups became an early venue for her work.

This rendition of "Ida Lupino," recorded in 1965 and included on the Paul Bley Trio's newly reissued Closer, is darkly winsome. Named for the iconic British actress and credited here to Carla Bley and Terry Adams (of NRBQ), it succeeds with an elegiac recurring motif, overtones of folk and the blues, rapturous glissandos, and an expert grasp of volume dynamics. Bringing to mind Bley's softly exhilarating solo recitals, the theme segues in and out of a minor-key improvisation that meanders like pockets of storm clouds on an otherwise pleasant day. Bassist Steve Swallow appears along with the famously dynamic drummer Barry Altschul, whose metric looseness — shadows of rhythm that land on and around the pulse — draws comparison to the Bley drummer who recorded the tune first, Paul Motian.

The song reflects the sort of challenging sentimentality that would define moments in later decades, when great acoustic jazz piano infiltrated a rock audience. Two particular examples, Keith Jarrett and The Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson (both Bley disciples), have written music in its image — serene, unsettling, and gorgeously melancholy.

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This story originally ran on July 9, 2008.

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Evan Haga