If you’re reading this, you probably know that Paul Bley passed away on Sunday January 3, 2016. He was one of my favorite pianists. The thing about Paul is that everyone seems to have interesting stories about him. I’ll share a couple. First, a memory of a concert, then a story I heard about a recording session he participated in.
It was either December 2003 or January/February 2004. I was set up to go on the one and only blind date of my life. The plan was to meet my date, T (I’ll respect her anonymity) along with some mutual friends in Times Square, and then go see Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Paul Motion in concert at Birdland. So I met her as planned, and we walked to Birdland. However I didn't really know where the club was. I had walked by it a couple months before, and I thought I’d find it no problem. But it didn’t work out that way. We circled the area a few times. It was cold out. It was before smart phones. I think I made a great first impression on T, obviously.
Eventually we found the club. We got student tickets at the bar, which were actually pretty good seats, especially if you were on the stage side of the bar, which we were. I actually hadn't checked out much Paul Bley at that time. But I knew he was an influence on Keith Jarrett, who I had been pretty obsessed with at that time. And I knew Gary Peacock and Paul Motion quite well because of their associations with Keith, so I was there to see them just as much as to check out Bley.
The concert was great - spacey piano trio, low piano notes. Interplay on a high level, meaningful, thoughtful notes.
What stands out clearest in my memory though, was how slow Paul Bley moved. At the end of the set, during a well-deserved standing ovation, he began to walk off stage. It was obvious that there was going to be an encore. After about a 5-minute walk (or shuffle) he had made it about 75% of the way to the end of the stage. He paused, raised his hands slightly as if to say “Well, screw this, I ain’t going to make it all they way off stage.” He turned around and slowly shuffled his way back to the piano - another 5-minute, applause-filled journey - and played an encore.
I don’t know what T thought of the concert. I called her a day or two later to see if we could go out again. She kind of dodged the question, and asked if I could help an aspiring actor friend of hers move in to an apartment in Times Square. I helped, like a gentleman, but to my surprise T wasn’t there herself to help with the move. I called T the next day, but she was unavailable to meet. The next time I called her, same thing, and right before hanging up she said,
“Yeah?” I said.
“I’m not like really interesting in anything beyond like being friends. I mean, I like you, and I’d like to hang out sometimes as friends, but I’m not interested in like a serious relationship or anything.”
“Oh. No problem.” I said. “That’s fine. But let’s hang out sometime.”
“Ok. Sure. Ok. Bye.”
I never spoke to her again.
In 2009 I went to Systems Two in Brooklyn to record my second trio album, called Magnolia. Joe Marciano was engineering and the day before he had engineered a session on which Paul Bley was a side musician. Joe couldn’t stop talking about the experience of having Paul in the studio.
He said that at first they couldn’t get him out of the control booth. Apparently he was drinking coffee and telling stories to no end. Joe said after about 2 hours they finally managed to him to the piano. However the piano bench couldn’t be adjusted high enough for Paul’s liking. He indeed sat very high as one can see on many YouTube videos. Joe said they kept adding phone books one by one until they eventually they had a stack of them duct taped to the bench that Paul was essentially leaning up against. But now that ended up being too high for Paul. So they began taking them away, until some kind of compromise was reached and it was finally acceptable for him.
They managed to get a couple hours of recording in before taking a break. After listening to some takes the bandleader (I cannot recall who it was) asked everyone to return to the studio so they could continue recording. But Paul was nowhere to be found. After searching the building, one of the interns at the studio said that Paul had said goodbye to him. He had just up and left the session. It reminds me of a quote of his from the liner notes of the Paul Bley Paul Motian duo record called Notes. “My Goal is to do the record date in a single swoop. We like to think of keeping the taxi waiting while we make the record, as opposed to spending three months in the studio.” I guess his cab fare was getting a little too high that day.