The forcibly non-distractive nature of the Jazz Bakery’s country-chapel asceticism greatly enhanced Paul Bley’s sublime demonstration of the piano’s spectral possibilities with spare, sensitive accompanist from bassist Charlie Haden during their four-night stint at the Culver City venue.
Bley’s appearance couldn’t have been more rare; the last time he played in the Southland was roughly 30 years ago, when he shared the bandstand with Sonny Rollins. In his two sets Friday, Bley showed why he’s arguably the greatest influence on such exploratory pianists as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, whose improvisational recordings owe much to Bley’s deconstructive, highly concentrated playing.
Bley cast cadence to the wind in the first two numbers, freely flowing between varying time signatures and constantly shifting inner voicings that were stunning in their ideas and fluidity. More often than not, Bley would merely suggest a tune as a vehicle to explore harmonic frontiers, turning a ballad such as “Diane” into a bluesy vamp, and even throwing a passage from Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” into the mix.
Haden, whose variations on a single note were taken to the extreme on the Carla Bley tune “Ida Lupino,” also exhibited nimble dexterity on the swinging Rollins number “Pent-Up House.”
Despite the intellectual rigor associated with many of Bley’s LPs, the visceral beauty of this live performance spoke very much to the heart, combining stunning technique with breathtaking lyricism. Bley’s ability to turn certain traditions on their ear, such as the Spanish phrasing of Ornette Coleman’s “Latin Genetics,” is one thing, but turning the composition into a show of Bley’s uncompromising artistry — the antithesis of everything that’s commercial in jazz — is why his music matters now more than ever.