Solo in Mondsee

Paul Bley

Paul Bley, master improviser, alone at a Bösendorfer Imperial piano in Mondsee, Austria. Kaleidoscopically-splintered melodies, distant memories of standards, abstractions of the blues and spontaneous free playing are some of the subjects of the Canadian pianist’s “Mondsee Variations”. This is a resolutely creative and characteristically profound performance from one of the most influential pianists in the entire history of jazz, and Bley’s first solo recording on ECM since the crucial “Open, To Love” album of 1972.

Featured Artists Recorded

April 2001, Schloss Mondsee

Original Release Date


  • 1Mondsee Variation I
    (Paul Bley)
  • 2Mondsee Variation II
    (Paul Bley)
  • 3Mondsee Variation III
    (Paul Bley)
  • 4Mondsee Variation IV
    (Paul Bley)
  • 5Mondsee Variation V
    (Paul Bley)
  • 6Mondsee Variation VI
    (Paul Bley)
  • 7Mondsee Variation VII
    (Paul Bley)
  • 8Mondsee Variation VIII
    (Paul Bley)
  • 9Mondsee Variation IX
    (Paul Bley)
  • 10Mondsee Variation X
    (Paul Bley)
Jazzman, Choc du mois
Another example of the improv imagination and self-sufficient virtuosity that has influenced many pianists, Jarrett included. … Though standards are fleetingly hinted at, Bley’s variations are less song-rooted than Jarrett’s, and he’s more absorbed by the sonics of the piano. It’s a dense, mostly slow-moving, session, but layered, coloured and sculpted by decades of concentrated invention that distils down to pure Bley.
John Fordham, The Guardian
This veteran jazz pianist’s new album, Solo in Mondsee, is a solo-piano record of improvisations, most of them balladlike and quite beautiful, even in their most sprawling phases. He builds them up quickly as coherent tunes, often with possible distant precedents and then takes them apart. The album is like deep immersion in his brain, which is, come to think of it, what a lot of us want from a great improviser.
Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
These 10 spontaneous improvisations, presumably the pick of some lengthy sessions, are not standards. But harmonically, melodically and emotionally they evoke ghostly echoes of the Great American Songbook. They’re sweepingly romantic fantasies, discursively lyrical stories, brilliant in the way they discover and rework motifs, full of surprise and expectations delightfully confounded.
Ray Comiskey, Irish Times
Bley brilliert mit kargen Klängen, klaren Akzenten. Sein Anschlag ist bisweilen nonchalant wie der Pinselstrich eines Expressionisten. So schafft er mit großzügigen Gesten offene Formen, in denen ein frischer Wind weht, ein gewitzter Geist regiert. Doch auch die Seele strahlt immer wieder hinein, wärmend und leuchtend. Gerade in den „Mondsee-Variationen I – X“ glänzt Bley als besonnener Romantiker und beflügelter Rhapsode, der elegische Motive und hymnische Momente in schlüssigen Improvisationen entwickelt.
Uli Bernays, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
35 Jahre nach dem einflussreichen Solo-Debüt Open, To Love… erscheint ein neues unbegleitetes Meisterwerk des superben Pianisten. Die zehn funkelnden Tracks entstanden 2001 … im offenkundig inspirierenden Schloss Mondsee als vor Überraschungen strotzende Improvisationen. Meditativ fließend, offen strukturiert, farbenreich durchgezeichnet – ein entschleunigtes Klangabenteuer.
Sven Thielmann, Stereoplay
Wo Standards gerade noch als ferne Reminiszenzen am Rande wetterleuchten, wie die Musik einer tschechowschen Festgesellschaft, die vom anderen Ufer des Sees und des Jahrhunderts herüberweht, verschwimmt das Angeeignete im Eigenen. Ein manchmal sprödes, manchmal ans Herz greifendes, mal abstrahierendes, mal einfühlendes Selbstgespräch von großer Klarheit sind diese Mondsee-Variationen. Eine Reise ins Unterste des Improvisators und in all seine Obertöne. Die Spirale ist in beiden Richtungen unendlich.
Peter Rüedi, Die Weltwoche

“Basically, the body of music that exists is like a river meeting a dam – constantly accumulating. Finally it will break through.... The music is inevitable, and it cannot stand still; it never has been able to stand still. It will change, and it will flow, but the seeds of the solution always exist in the music itself.”
Paul Bley in Down Beat, in 1964

Released in time for Paul Bley’s 75th birthday this autumn, “Solo in Mondsee” is the first Bley solo piano album on ECM in 35 years, and may be considered a very belated ‘sequel’ to 1972’s “Open, To Love”. In the interim the Canadian-born pianist has been acknowledged as one of the very great solo improvisers, documenting his unaccompanied playing at many addresses - including his own Improvising Artists Inc (IAI) - and has been featured on ECM with many other projects and ensembles. It was, however, producer Manfred Eicher who first prompted Bley to take the solo route. Bley talks about this in the new book “Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM” (Granta, London, 2007):

“When Manfred called to ask ‘Do you want to make a solo album?’ the idea had never occurred to me. That’s how early it was. The call from ECM coincided with a period when I was trying to be the slowest pianist in the world, which in turn was connected to the work I had just finished with my electronic period: One of the things I liked in electronics was the possibility of long sustains. I demanded, on going back to acoustic music, that the piano itself should be able to duplicate what I’d been able to get electronically.” This was, to large extent, achieved on “Open, To Love”, an album that looked at space, silence and slow tempos, and emphasized the singing interplay of overtones in the decay of struck chords in a way that still seems radical more than three decades later. If an ‘ECM aesthetic’ can be said to exist, that album of slow songs, ‘with raindrops in the right hand’ (as Manfred Eicher once said), provided one of the early blueprints.

That was then. The idea of a new Bley solo album had been raised during sessions for “Not Two, Not One”, the album Paul made with old cohorts Gary Peacock and Paul Motian in a revival of the 1960s Bley Trio: the same line-up that had played on (most of) “Paul Bley with Gary Peacock” (ECM 1003). “Not Two, Not One” recorded at New York’s Avatar in 1998 had been the first of Bley’s ECM discs to feature him on a Bösendorfer piano.

A little later that year, Manfred Eicher recorded András Schiff playing Schubert fantasies on a superb Bösendorfer Imperial Grand in Mondsee, Austria (see ECM New Series 1699), and decided to invite Bley to the same location. It seemed a logical continuation: first the great interpreter, and then the master improviser.

Bley introduces his recital with a thunderclap, striking the bass end of the piano’s harp of strings. Ten pieces of jewelled brilliance follow, with a remarkable turnover of ideas: each of these ‘Mondsee Variations’ is packed with musical surprises, and unexpected changes of direction. “Bley is a genius”, Nat Hentoff wrote in the Village Voice. “There are few pianists in any form of music who so intriguingly interweave the surprises of both beauty and the intellect.” Kaleidoscopically-splintered melodies, distant memories of standards, abstractions of the blues and spontaneous free playing are some of the subjects of these ever-changing tracks which repay repeated listening.