I’m missing Paul Bley today, after learning of his passing yesterday, January 3, 2016. It’s impossible to imagine there won’t be more rich and humorous encounters with the great jazz master. I consider it great luck to have been able to spend time with him, and even more lucky to have made music with him. We had in common a fondness for the crazy iconoclast, trumpet player Herbie Spanier, who, Bley guessed as we tried to work it out, probably arrived on my family’s doorstep in Toronto after leaving the West coast where he had been playing with Paul. My parents kept a kind of artistic open house for wayward jazz musicians at the time, Anglo-expats from Montreal after the FLQ bombings, who gathered at our house for jam sessions and, in the case of Herbie, taught me how to improvise freely. (eg. just sing anything! whatever pops into your head! don’t listen to me! don’t follow me!) It set up a kind of kinship between me and Paul, that bond of having known and suffered Herbie (let’s be honest). As Paul stole my french fries from my plate at the Montreal Jazz Festival, he regaled Michel and I with entertaining stories about his life, loves and adventures in Italy, New York and beyond. Many of these great stories are in this book, The Logic of Chance, translated from Italian by another good friend of ours, pianist Greg Burk.
Paul arrived for our Sand Underfoot session in Montreal a few years later with only a toothbrush in his coat pocket, a role model for travelling light. He bombarded me with questions to get a sense of my musical ideas, frightened me a little, made me laugh a lot, and nearly walked out when he heard the tuning of the piano at the CBC Studios. It was both exciting and stressful. Somewhere in the city our very young children were with my mom in a total blackout, picnicking in the dark. Barre Phillips, our dear friend and bass player who had also flown in for the session, was ill and drifting in and out of sleep in his recording booth. (Later Paul took me aside and said, don’t lose him! He is loved all over the world so be careful and don’t be the ones to lose him! Omg! The walk-in clinic doctor was much less dramatic and sent Barre home saying just to rest, phew. Barre’s performance on the recording was characteristically impeccable and energetic nevertheless.)
Here is one of the tracks from our recording, Sand Underfoot. The lyrics express my feelings about how Indonesia tosses her residents aside so lightly, as it certainly did with my father’s family. It proved to be precognitive in many ways a few months later when the Boxing Day tsunami did indeed toss so many people in Indonesia from the earth out to the sea (eg. you’d pull us all down, lose us, once and for all, in a moment, in a roar). It is dangerous along the rim of fire, but I was lucky to have a musical guide and mentor inspiring me all along the way.
Returning here to add … I don’t understand what kind of a world we live in that allows the tragic loss of Paul’s daughter Vanessa and her young children in devastating random violence. Unfathomable and puzzling too as Herbie’s son Calder also passed so suddenly in a crash too young. So as we light a candle for Paul we include three more and say a prayer.