CD Reviews

Music on the Web (UK)

Webmaster: Len Mullenger

[ Jazz index ] [Nostalgia index]  [ Classical MusicWeb ] [ Gerard Hoffnung ]

Reviewers: Don Mather, Tony Augarde, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby

AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Solo in Mondsee

Paul Bley piano
Mondsee Variations I-X

Recorded April 2001
ECM 1709775 (1786) [55:43]




Released in time for Paul Bley’s 75th birthday in the autumn of 2007, Solo in Mondsee is the first Bley solo piano album on ECM in 35 years. Paul Bley was born in Montreal in 1932. While still in his twenties he played with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Chet Baker, and many others. At 21, he made his first album as a leader for Charles Mingus’s Debut label, with Mingus himself on bass and Art Blakey on drums.
Briefly based in California in the late 1950s, his quintet of 1958 helped introduce the talents of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins to the jazz world. In the early 1960s, as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio and in his own groups, Bley brought chamber music clarity into the new domain of free jazz. A prolific recording artist, Bley was amongst the first artists to appear on ECM with "Paul Bley with Gary Peacock" (recorded 1964 and 1968) and "Ballads" (recorded 1967) – those were issued as ECM 1003 and ECM 1010. In 1972 Eicher recorded Bley solo on the enduring classic "Open, To Love" (ECM 1023), to which this new solo album might be seen as a much belated sequel.

Manfred Eicher had already recorded András Schiff playing Schubert fantasies on the superb Bösendorfer Imperial Grand in Mondsee, Austria (ECM New Series 1699), and decided to invite Bley to the same location. The choice on instrument has to be a big influence on any improvised session, and the more rounded sound and greater sustain that a Bösendorfer has over the usually brighter sounding modern Steinway suits Bley’s sense of space and timelessness to the ground. Bley doesn’t overwork the tonsil-rattling bass that this piano has, but in this superb recording you can sense him exploring, roaming the registers and revelling in the instrument’s expressive potential.

The Mondsee Variations are less variations in the classical sense – based around a theme or musical idea, they are more a set of musical shapes fitting around a mood; filled with musical surprises and unexpected changes of direction. If your are hunting for references to describe Paul Bley’s style then for me at least, it is a relief not to have to say he owes anything to Keith Jarrett – the fact being that the direction of any influence is the other way around. Bley is best known for his myriad collaborations and work in the field of electronic music making, and I find his solo pianism hard to categorise. Thinking of some other favourites, he is in any case far removed from the down-to-earth brilliance of Dave McKenna, or the more Gallic romanticism of Michel Petrucciani – yes, if you like Keith Jarrett, at least at when he’s not being obscure and pretentious, you should like this. Bley shares that right-hand melodic facility which is the magic implement of all great jazz pianists. The harmonies are sometimes suggested or lushly present, but they always feel ‘right’. This is not ‘free jazz’ improvisation in the sense that it sails in any way close to aversion-therapy abstract musicianship, and many tracts of this album could almost withstand misuse as background music if you were so inclined, although the higher-number variations do become a little more demanding. There isn’t much in the way of overt funkiness: Paul Bley’s groove lies several layers deeper than the immediately accessible epidermis, but seek and ye shall find. Listen properly, and become acquainted with this pianist’s individuality of idiom and style, and you may find that this album’s 55 minutes have passed in a kind of trance. You won’t get those 55 minutes back, but time was rarely spent with greater reward.

Dominy Clements


Gerard Hoffnung CDs

Advertising on

Donate and get a free CD

New Releases

Naxos Classical


Musicweb sells the following labels
Acte Préalable
Cameo Classics
Northern Flowers
Toccata Classics

Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing

Sample: See what you will get

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: