Jazz in perspective

Sam Lewin

After my iTunes shuffle played the track “When Will The Blues Leave?” from pianist Paul Bley’s album “Footloose!” last Saturday, I knew that I was going to have to compulsively listen to the album for a while. And listen I have. Lately, as I walk throughout campus, I put on my bulky headphones, isolate myself from the outside world and exclusively listen to Bley’s 1962 collaboration with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete La Roca. “Footloose!” grows on me after each listen.
“Footloose!” was recorded in 1962, and represents Bley’s first recordings as a leader. Indeed, in an interview with the saxophonist and drummer Bill Smith, Bley called “Footloose!” the first good record he made. “Footloose!” is one of Bley’s earliest albums, and is also one of his best.
While Bley is known for pioneering elements of “free” jazz piano playing – before recording the album, he played in groups with bassist Charles Mingus and the then-controversial saxophonist Ornette Coleman – “Footloose!” is actually fairly straight-ahead.
Bley plays very thoughtfully and creates a unique voice throughout the album, but does not take very many liberties with form. On later albums, Bley moves away from rigid forms, often using themes as a jumping off point for improvisation. Many of his later recordings are quite free, so it is actually somewhat refreshing to hear Bley in a swinging, more straight-ahead context.
The album begins with the Ornette Coleman tune, “When Will The Blues Leave?”, a catchy blues in which the trio sticks to a 12-bar form. Bley has the first solo and, while he roots his solo in the blues, he sounds rather sophisticated, as his playing seems thought-out and not too sporadic.
Swallow and La Roca play fairly up-tempo swing throughout the tune, and Bley’s solo locks in with Swallow and La Roca’s well-defined groove and never strays too far from their time.
Swallow’s solo follows Bley’s and takes even fewer liberties. Swallow walks the bass line for the majority of his solo, only occasionally adding nuances. Bley’s comping during Swallow’s solo is fairly expressive, but he avoids overplaying.
Bley stretches further out on “Around Again,” a tune composed by his ex-wife Carla Bley. “Around Again” begins with a melody played on the piano and is propelled by offbeat hits. Bley follows the melody with a solo that effectively uses space and bursts of speed.
And although Bley’s solo and the tune’s obscure melody suggest a more “out” drum solo, La Roca’s solo is somewhat reminiscent of rudimental, bebop era drum solos. La Roca swings hard in his solos throughout the album and often references the swing ostinato on the ride cymbal.
La Roca is a more straight-ahead drummer than those who Bley played with later in his career – most notably Paul Motian and Barry Altschul – and La Roca’s refusal to play freer time forces Bley to develop his freer ideas while swinging.
While “Footloose!” is not a strictly straight-ahead album, it incorporates straight-ahead elements and mixes them with Bley’s leanings towards free jazz. The interaction among the three musicians is also makes the album striking. Bley’s sidemen solo throughout the album, and Bley proves himself to be an effective improviser and accompanist. “Footloose!” showcases Bley’s distinct and influential sound, a sound that remains influential today in the jazz community.