Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Solo in Mondsee

Solo in Mondsee
By Paul Bley

Solo piano can be a real challenge. Without bass or drums, the pianist is on their own for rhythm. Paul Bley makes it sound easy on Solo in Mondsee, an improvised solo session that is relaxed, and surprisingly melodic.

Recorded in Mondsee, Austria, each track is simply entitlted “Mondsee Variation I-X.” Each variation has its own character, but sounds like a piece of Bley’s whole. “Variation I” establishes a delicate, pensive mood, despite the foreboding introductory note delivered on the bass strings of the piano. The mood brightens and the tempo quickens with the “Variation II,” as Bley improvises first a pleasing melody, then reinterpreting it in various ways.

Solo is not simply contemplative music. Bley brings darker hues to “Variation VII” through discordant notes and some heavy left hand. “Variation VIII,” features a particularly strong rhythmic attack and Jarrett-esque hummed accompaniment. Throughout Bley shows masterful command of the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, as with his impressive runs on “Variations V & X.”

Throughout Mondsee, Bley consistently takes each improvised “Variation” in surprising directions. He changes mood on a dime, spinning out sparkling melodies and embarking on free passages, while keeping a hint of the blues (still subtle, but perhaps easiest to hear on “Variation X” around 2:10).

Mondsee will doubtless be compared to other ECM solo piano sessions, like Bley’s first solo outing Open, To Love, and the work of Keith Jarrett, most notably his classic Köln Concert. Mondsee, like Köln, is strongly identified with the city it was recorded in, albeit under very different circumstances. The two also could be classified as jazz for classical music lovers (or perhaps vice versa).

As a solo improvised recital in its own right, Mondsee is a very strong session. Bley proves he is still an improviser of a high order. At times Mondsee is quite beautiful. Certainly agreeable as mere background music, it also rewards deeper, concerted listening.