Recorded in 1965 at the height of the free jazz revolution, an escalating conflict in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, pianist Paul Bley’s Closer was a wonderful, poetic anomaly. In an era where velocity and raw story-telling were required currency, Closer had a lyrical, Haiku-like simplicity — recalling the Japanese poet Basho’s line “something like a hidden glimmering.”
Closer is a fantastic gateway album for folks inclined toward the lyricism of Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or the expanded palette of Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, but also one that is solidly in the direction of outer orbits of a Lowell Davidson or a Ran Blake. From the cover — with Bley staring out at you, looking handsomely tousled, dark-eyed and rakish like a free-jazzJean-Paul Belmondo — to the opening strains of the lovely Ida Lupino, the music is a balm, a counterweight to the Promethean bursts of jazz-fire and 20-minute sax-blowing marathons of his contemporaries like Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor.
Closer gives us 10 accessible, concise and peculiarly beautiful compositions, including a handful of tunes by Bley’s then-wife Carla Bley, by soon-to-be lover Annette Peacock,and by that master of freedom and harmelodic truth, Ornette Coleman. Carla Bley’s gorgeously melancholic Ida Lupino casts us into an alternate universe of love and bittersweetness. For me it evokes poet Jack Gilbert’s line about “a lifetime of easy happiness mixed/with pain and loss.” The album could just simply stop there, at 2:55, and be a triumph.
But of course Closer offers us other reasons for living and listening — plenty of freewheeling trio-play (the tunes Batterie, Sideways in Mexico, Start) and lovely, elliptical melodies (And Now the Queen and Closer). Ultimately the album hinges on Bley and the trio’s exquisite patience and deliberation. As Thelonious Monk said, “Don’t play everything, let some music go by — some music can be just imagined… A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world.” In Bley’s hands the freedom of jazz manifests itself in the negotiating of borders and edges, between skittering, conversational interplay, serene space and the heart-strained melodic intimacy on the part of his bandmates, drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Steve Swallow.
This album set the stage for a 40+ year relationship with tunes Bley would return to time and again (notably on his Open, To Love, an achingly beautiful solo album from 1972) — tunes that are every bit as alluring as when recorded that first cold December day in 1965. Closer, finally, is just that: an album you develop ever more proximity with; one you will come home to again and again.
-Tim Duroche, host of The New Thing, Mondays 9-10 PM