Bley’s explorative nature and distinctive sound, merging intellectual curiosity with artistic accomplishment, have resulted in advances, such as adapting to piano the free jazz breakout of Ornette Coleman, that always pushed the envelope, leaving others to study what he has done and understand its significance. Indeed, Bley is credited with helping to produce the first music video in the seventies. Bley, along with Gary Burton, pioneered the solo jazz recording as well, and reportedly Bley nudged the fledgling ECM Records into close-miking the piano, helping to establish the sound for which the label became known. Bley’s first ECM solo recording, Open To Love, led to a series of subsequent solo albums; Bley has recorded four of them just on Justin Time.
Now, Bley has recorded five.
Nothing To Declare, while implying an international theme with its allusion to customs procedures, in fact refers to American standards and blues throughout the CD. Perhaps "nothing to declare" suggests disarming false humility, when the pianist and the listener know full well that Bley has a lot to declare and has been making important musical declarations for half a century.
Bley’s style may consist of dry or ascetic impressionism, as if each note were considered for its full value and placement before it is struck, objects of study and wonder. Or it may not. On Nothing To Declare, Bley injects humor and even an earthiness into his playing that is absent in more rarefied recordings. As a result, this solo CD is more accessible than others, even as he refuses to abandon some of his signature elements, such as unexpected scampering bursts, contrapuntal development of themes, close attention to touch and veering directions of harmonic changes as tunes are stretched or torn for reconstruction.
The title track, "Nothing To Declare," proceeds at a deliberate pace and it becomes evident that Bley has based his spontaneous improvisation on the changes to "All The Things You Are." For more than eighteen minutes, he approaches the changes from fresh angles previously unexplored, darker and more meditative than usual. In contrast, but still in accordance with Bley’s consideration of familiar forms on this CD, "Blues Waltz," adopts elements of the blues even as he transforms them into a creation of his own, at times seemingly not quite a blues and not quite a waltz, as the twelve-bar form expands and contracts and metrical constraints are released. Bley’s "8th Avenue" contains elements of blues as well, even as he explores the possibilities of the piano’s sound, ringing, sustained, clustered, cushioned by surrounding space, connected by implied lines of thought.
Even as Bley has the opportunity to reflect upon an astounding career, one of invention and restlessness, he chooses instead to move forward along new avenues of creativity, even as he returns to the city of his birth, Montreal, to record them.