As you’ve probably heard since you were a little kid, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Which means you also can’t judge a movie by its poster, a video game by its box art, or a breakfast cereal by its cartoony mascot. Y’know, the one on its cover. But it’s also true of a name, as illustrated by the title of Paul Bley’s new album, Play Blue: Oslo Concert. Because while it has a playfully pun-ny title, the music is anything but goofy.
(photo © Carol Goss)
Recorded in August of 2008, at the Kulturkirken Jakob (which is a former church turned performance space) during the Oslo Jazz Festival, Play Blue: Oslo Concert presents this iconic and influential jazz pianist playing a rare solo show.
But while Bley is on his own here, the music on Play Blue: Oslo Concert is hardly what you’d call self-indulgent. Though two of the five songs clock in over fifteen minutes each, and the shortest, a cover of Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-Up House,” is still over six minutes long, songs such as “Far North,” which opens the album, “Longer,” and “Flame” don’t sound like piano solos, or a pianist trying to prove he’s a master of his instrument. Instead, Bley here plays as if he’s the pianist, bassist, and drummer in a jazz group, as he performs both the rhythms and the melodies to these songs.
Which, of course, is what a piano player should do when playing solo, but as we all know, that isn’t always the case.
What is usually the case, though, is that the fewer people playing jazz, the moodier the music gets. This is obviously not a steadfast rule, more a rule of thumb, but it is true for this disc. Many of the songs Paul Bley plays on Play Blue: Oslo Concert, are dark and moody, with Bley mostly playing slow and carefully, often sparsely, though never tentatively, as if he’s unsure of himself. Instead — and this may somewhat be because it was recorded in a former church — the music has an airy quality, almost as it is has plenty of room to move.
This is not to say that Bley doesn’t get a little playful here and there. In the beginning of the song “Way Down South Suite,” for instance, his fingers are clearly doing acrobatics on the keys. Same for “Pent-Up House,” which closes the album (though, again, it’s hardly as cheeky as its name might suggest). But, for the most part, the music on Play Blue: Oslo Concert is closer to a moody soundscape than something you might hear the piano player play in a hotel’s bar or the food court of a mall.
Though while Play Blue: Oslo Concert is moody and atmospheric throughout, this nearly hour-long album never grows tiresome or redundant. Sure, if you don’t like music that’s dark, or is more textural than structural, this will probably get on your nerves. But for those of us who’ve embraced the dark side, Paul Bley’s stark and somber playing here is just gorgeous.
In the end, Paul Bley’s Play Blue: The Oslo Concert is deceptively named. There’s no two ways about it. But while it’s title may be funny — well, trying to be (sorry, dude) — there’s nothing funny about how the moody music on this disc creates an evocatively dark mood, one that’s hauntingly beautiful as it is carefully atmospheric.