Sunday, November 3, 2013

BYG Actuel 13: Paul Bley - Ramblin'

There have already been a few anomalies in the BYG Actuel catalog so far: the avant classical of Michel Puig, the psychedelic proto-prog of Gong, and the never-issued blues rock of Alan Jack Civilization. Number 13 in the Actuel catalog is also an anomaly, although not primarily on stylistic grounds. Unlike almost all of the fifty-three albums in the label’s catalog, Paul Bley’s Ramblin’ was not recorded in the Actuel summer in 1969. It wasn’t even recorded in France. Instead, it was an unused recording that Paul Bley’s trio made in Rome in 1966 that Bley licensed to Actuel three years later. As such, it is missing that particular adventurous spirit that marks so much of the rest of that catalog.

By the time he recorded Ramblin’, Bley had already been an important figure in boundary-pushing jazz for thirteen years. His debut album as leader, Introducing Paul Bley, was released on Debut in 1953, and he somehow managed to wrangle Charles Mingus and Art Blakey to be his sidemen. He was one of the first respected jazz musicians to really get behind what Ornette Coleman and his band were doing, and he brought Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden to perform with him in California in 1958. After his work with Coleman, he got around quite a bit, performing with Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, and a few prominent members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, among others. By 1964, he was firmly entrenched in the free jazz movement and he was one of the major participants in the October Revolution in Jazz. After the October Revolution he, his wife Carla Bley, and Bill Dixon spearheaded the Jazz Composers Guild, an admirable but flawed attempt to unify out jazz musicians in order to help them get stage time and fair record contracts. Infighting and the individual success of some members (most notably Archie Shepp, who violated Guild bylaws by signing with Impulse! without consulting the others) caused the JCG to splinter quickly. After the JCG ceased to be, Bley traveled to Europe with his trio, which at the time included Mark Levinson on bass and Barry Altschul on drums. While in Rome on July 1, 1966, the group convened at Studio RCA to record one Paul Bley song along with five compositions by Carla Bley, Annette Peacock, and Ornette Coleman.

The result was Ramblin’, an album that stands out among the rest of the Actuel catalog for its sheer lack of ambition. It is a fine album, but its hard bop stylings can’t help but pale against albums like Luna Surface and Poem for Malcolm. Side one, which consists of opener “Both,” written by Annette Peacock, and “Albert’s Love Theme” and “Ida Lupino,” both by Carla Bley, is all subtle dynamics. In fact, everything is so subtle that it too often struggles to sustain attention. Altschul gets some nice soloing in during the last third of “Both,” and Bley’s playing on “Ida Lupino” is genuinely engaging, but for the most part the whole side drifts by without leaving much of an impression.

Side two, which opens with the Ornette Coleman-penned title track, is definitely a move in the right direction, but Bley’s interpretation lacks the spark of the original. Still, he has an excellent solo about a third of the way into the song, and the lingering impression sticks around for the rest of the song even through a lackluster Levinson solo near the end. The following tune “Touching” gets directly to the heart of this album’s problem. In spite of some nice cymbal work from Altschul, the rhythm section just doesn’t fully gel and attempts to really enjoy the album just become a waiting game every time Bley takes a break from playing. Thankfully, he barely breaks on the closer “Mazatalon,” the sole Paul Bley composition on the album. After working with others’ compositions for the entire album so far, he really seems to be having fun playing a song of his own, and there is an energy, even a joy, that isn’t present anywhere else on Ramblin’. Even Levinson gets in some excellent soloing. It’s a great note to end an otherwise disappointing album from this piano great.

The bottom line is that this is both one of the least representative and one of the least interesting albums that BYG Actuel ever put out (although it’s one of the first I would recommend to people who absolutely loathe free jazz). It’s also far from Bley’s career best. After Ramblin’ was released, the excellent Improvisie and Dual Unity were both just a few years away, and most of his ’62-’65 stuff is amazing (I especially recommend his two ESP-Disks Barrage and Closer). It isn’t all that surprising that this record was held from release after it was recorded. But considering how amazing most of the BYG Actuel catalog was up to this point, it’s a shame that this is the material that Bley decided to license to them.

Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 14: Acting Trio – Acting Trio
Actuel 15: Anthony Braxton – B-Xo/N-0-1-47a
Actuel 16: Andrew Cyrille – What About?
Actuel 17: Joachim Kuhn – Sounds of Feelings
Actuel 18: Archie Shepp РBlas̩

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