A given in much of the literature on jazz is that a player's sound on his instrument is an extension of his speaking voice—a clue to his personality. The pianist Paul Bley is an exception to this rule. In the 1960s, on albums like Footloose, with the bassist Steve Swallow and the drummer Pete LaRoca, and Closer, with Swallow and the drummer Barry Altschul, Bley trimmed the outsized emotions of that decade's jazz avant‐ garde to fit the more intimate setting of the piano trio—a major contribution to jazz, though one initially drowned out by the angry rant of many of Bley's saxophonist contemporaries. At the piano, Bley gives the impression of weighing each note before delivering it, even when phrasing at a rapid clip. He will often repeat a phrase, giving it greater emphasis the second time, like someone mulling over what he has just said and deciding it bears immediate repeating, with verbal italics to underscore its significance. Unafraid of silence, Bley makes it swing.
He is just the opposite in conversation: a non-stop anecdotalist with the booming voice and affable manner of a morning disc jockey and with an inveterate outsider's eye for comic detail. I first spoke with him at a Portuguese jazz festival in 1997; as the only American journalist at the festival, I was enlisted by my Portuguese colleagues to approach Bley on their behalf (they were hoping to interview him but hesitant to approach him themselves on account of their limited English). I called Bley in his hotel room, he came right down, he did the interview with me helping the Portuguese over a few linguistic rough spots, and four hours later we were still talking—and not just about music. He even passed along a few