A certain reader has been quick to jump down my throat anytime I use the term "free jazz" in this blog. Specifically when dealing with members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, such as Muhal Richard Abrams and the Air trio. Perhaps because because those guys open with themes before running wild, this reader aggressively contends that they aren't "free" (even if Tom Moon thinks they are). Maybe he'll cut me some slack with "Fragments" by pianist Paul Bley. Some of the tracks open in relative unity comparable to other non-free artists, but hey, Bley is credited as one of the icons of free jazz, so it must be true.
Bley's style on "Fragments" is different than that of Abrams and his fellows at the AACM, and I mean it's an obvious difference. You don't need to be an expert on jazz to figure it out. The AACM's Chicago background comes out in the music's organization. The group occasionally takes more minimalist approaches, but the city's big band history often makes for raucous performances. Bley might just have a smaller band, but the the music created here sounds like it has a lot more room to breathe than the previous free jazz efforts we've heard.
Consider the longer pieces opening the album, "Memories" and "Monica Jane." Bley obviously doesn't have any sheet music in front of him, and you can tell. His contribution of melodic piano lines is pragmatic, and you can almost hear the gears turning in his head, in the form of the silences between his quiet improvisations. Saxophonist John Surman plays minimally as well during "Memories." During "Monica Jane," Burman opens in force with his saxophone, but then drops out at 1:20 to allow Bley and guitarist Bill Frisell room to be heard. Burman doesn't return until 4:50.
The recording process is used to add to the feeling of openness. I looked up Rainbow Studio in Oslo to see how big it really was, and it's not enough to explain the sense of emptiness on this "Fragments." Considering the mood it sets, the tone had to be intentional. It's amazing how many variations of open space there are. "Monica Jane" has the mournful air of a near-empty bar. "Nothing Ever Was Anyway" evokes an abandoned mansion in decay. "Once Around The Park" sounds like a quiet walk outdoors.
The album isn't a total ambient trip. The various members take their turns in the spotlight. Bley is at the fore in both of the pieces written by his then-wife Carla (see postscript), "Seven" and "Closer." Surman and Frisell go to town on "Line Down," the oddball on the album. Frisell only makes a few appearances throughout with his guitar, but in "Line" he forgoes the polite-plucking jazz guitar route, and releases some very electric squeals and hammer-ons that wouldn't have been out of place in a hair metal album during the same era.
When I said that Abrams and Ayler and Air didn't give the music the same room to breathe that Bley did, I didn't mean it in a bad way. But this is music for a different mood. It's quiet and contemplative. Not the stuff for an afternoon jam.
INTERESTING FACT: I wasn't even aware that there was a television special of The Far Side, but apparently Frisell is friends with cartoonist Gary Larson, so he provided the music for the show.
POSTSCRIPT: How does songwriting credits work for a "free-jazz" album? There are two songs attributed to Bley, two to Bley's wife, and a few to the other musicians involved. Doesn't it make it, you know, not free if something's written down or planned ahead? I'm asking. Angry critical reader, please go to town here.
"For The Love of Sarah" This is the only track from the album I could find anywhere online, but if you get a hold of "Fragments," listen to "Monica Jane" instead.