Bley School, Fringe, 3 July

While I sat listening, I was also thinking, “writing about this would defeat me”. Still, a gig this good deserves some kind of record. This good? In its way, yes. That way was pretty much what I expected from the personnel, and the dedicatee, Paul Bley. The late pianist was never exactly a household name but long celebrated in the jazz world as a dedicated, and obliquely creative improviser. 

Tipping their hats to him were Pat Thomas on the Fringe’s unlovely upright piano, free bass virtuoso Dominic Lash, Percy Pursglove, having an evening concentrating on the trumpet, and the ever-inventive Tony Orrell on drums, complete with an eye-catching Condor cymbal overlooking his kit.

Together, they leant toward the freer side of Bley’s playing, especially in the unbroken 45 minute opening set. This was genuinely free playing, in that the four were happy to slip into solid time, or follow a tune if they felt like it – but mostly they didn’t. The main business was collective extemporisation, with a few thematic anchors generally alluded to rather than stated unequivocally. Quite demanding on the concentration, but full of interest if you were already tuned in to this way of music-making: probably coming across as pretty uncompromising if you weren’t. 

The slightly shorter second set had a different air. There were more handholds as we ascended – a recognisable In Walked Bud at the beginning was succeeded by several other themes that sounded at least somewhat familiar. There were passages that hewed more closely to bop, as opposed to the more determinedly post-bop playing in the first set, some bluesiness (also evident earlier) and positively lyrical episodes from trumpet and piano.

There was no talk, save for band name checks at the end, and it was a bit of a “take it or leave it” evening, I guess. Aside from (I think) a touch of Carla Bley (Ida Lupino, was it?) in set one and the aforementioned bit of Monk, I couldn’t identify anything they played. But the intense focus of all four, their speed of response, and lightning changes of mood was entirely absorbing, especially in the later set.

It’s late, and I don’t have any other neat ways to describe what just happened. So yes, I do fail my own simple test of music writing, which is to find ways to go beyond what most reviews boil down to: either, “this was good of its kind” or, “if you like this kind if thing, then this was the kind of thing you’d have liked” or some combination of those.

Still, if you like this kind of thing, you would have liked it. And it was very good of its kind. That is all.

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