Paul Bley's sixty year career has been primarily one where he's worked with some of the biggest names in the vanguard of jazz in the quest for experimentation and many times he's marched to the beat of his own drummer. For a good part of that career, it was also about him playing to the brilliant but often quirky songs of his then-wife, Carla Bley.
Even given Bley's nonconformist reputation, there was no telling what was going to come out of a session recorded for Bernard Stollman's far, far left field label ESP-Disk. Armed with a half dozen new Carla Bley compositions and borrowing two of Sun Ra's horn players (Marshall Allen, alto sax, and Dewey Johnson, trumpet), Bley brought in Eddie Gomez (bass) and Milford Graves (percussion) and went about recording Barrage one October day in 1964.
With this strong lineup and his wife's compositions, Bley performed music that can best be described as Atlantic-period Ornette Coleman combined with the then-forming Jazz Composer's Guild. Not surprising, either, as the Bleys had connection with both: Paul had once led a band consisting of Coleman and his fellow revolutionaries just before they took the jazz world by storm, and Carla had become a major player in the Guild and the Jazz Composer's Orchestra that soon sprung from it.
The recording starts out in rambunctious fashion with "Batterie," with a horn-led theme that's theatrical in Carla Bley's trademark style. "Ictus" follows the same pattern, where Graves is all over his kit and Allen and Johnson are playing with an unquenchable fire.
"And Now The Queen" stands out in that's the only tune that doesn't race along at a frenetic pace. As the "ballad" of the lot it contains an actual melody, or melodic theme. Johnson does a good job finding his melancholy side and Johnson plays with much of the same phrasing he uses for the balls-out cuts, only slowed down. Bley's piano brims with creative ruminations totally devoid of cliche's.
"Around Again" picks up the pace again, and this time Bley gives himself more solo space, while Gomez is practically soloing right along with him. The five-way conversation going on within "Walking Woman" is nothing short of astonishing.
Carla Bley herself did the "tape assemblage" (tape splicing and layering) for the last track, "Barrage," which at times gives the illusion of the band sounding bigger than it actually is. Other times, there are some odd, jarring changes where it sounds as if half the band dropped off suddenly. This is a primitive, early use of such tape tinkering but with psychedelic rock lurking just around the corner, it would become more prevalent in just a couple of years. It's a real trip to hear it being used on music that's unpredictable to begin with.
Alas, the end of the record seems to come too quickly. None of the six selections in Barrage go over five and a half minutes and four of the tracks run less than 4:30, making the total running time less than half an hour. Even taking into account that this was recorded in the LP age, that's awfully short. If there were any leftover tracks, this would have been a perfect opportunity to tack them at the end of the CD, although it's not known if such extra tracks existed.
The other minor complaint is that the recording quality is not quite up to par with Blue Note and other larger jazz labels of that time; Graves sometimes sounds as if he's playing in the next room and Bley is himself is sometimes hard to find in the mix. It's certainly not terrible, but it would have been nice if the reissue had been accompanied with a 24-bit remastering.
Nonetheless, Barrage represents a standout entry in Paul Bley's exhaustive catalog, which is saying something. This is one of the more significant recordings made for ESP-Disk during their productive 1964-65 period, and last week's reissue is a welcome one for fans of Bley and free jazz.
You can check out all of ESP-Disk's offerings, new and old, at their website.