Ron Paley: The More You Know
Big Round Records

Ron Paley's the kind of seasoned player who's got the history of jazz at his fingertips, someone who can drop any number of references into a solo—a case in point the sly “Chattanooga Choo Choo” reference that surfaces within the blues-drenched title track of his Big Round Records debut. Make no mistake: The More You Know is a jazz album, and a jazz album that swings from the first note. But Paley's a man of formidable range, too, as shown by the inclusion of Tchaikovsky's “Waltz of the Flowers” and Chopin's “Prelude in C-Minor.” That's not showing off; he's simply a man with wide-ranging taste and an omnivorous appetite.

Much ground was covered before this release, which Paley recorded last year in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The pianist formed the Ron Paley Big Band in 1976 after playing electric bass in the bands of Buddy Rich and Woody Herman; other projects involved the Winnipeg Symphony and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Yet Paley's ongoing obsession is with big bands, as evidenced by his musical project Bring ‘Em Back! and its expressed longing for the form's resurrection; a number of songs from the musical, incidentally, appear on The More You Know.

It takes no time at all for the fifty-minute set to declare its swing allegiance. “Theme” bolts from the gate with blues-inflected melodies Paley voices joyfully, the piano chiming grandly and the pianist playing exuberantly; traces of classic boogie woogie weave their way into a vivacious performance that sets the bar high for the tunes that follow. Taken at a rapid clip, “U of M” barrels forth with laser-focused determination, with this time elements of gospel and R&B working their way into the playing; Paley even scats on the tune, his percussive vocal effects replicating the sound of a drummer trading fours with a pianist.

His playing is as impressive in the ballad performances. The urbane “A Beautiful Soul” is rendered exquisitely; the sophistication of Paley's technique and sensitivity of touch is exemplified by his nuanced delineation, much as it is in the subsequent “P & Q” and the endearingly wistful “Ballad Trilogy (Believe in Time, I Just Got Started, The Sea of Time),” the latter of which veritably oozes romance.

In addition to the aforementioned covers, Paley blends Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's “Alone Together” with Roy Orbison's “Pretty Woman” so seamlessly you'd be hard pressed to know where one ends and the other begins. His sparkling re-imagining of Chopin's “Prelude in C-Minor” proves haunting, and don't be surprised either if his elegantly swinging treatment of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker waltz sounds a little bit like what Bill Evans might have done with it. Of big bands, Paley speaks of how they performed a “spirited, dynamic form of pop music.” The More You Know might be a solo piano record, but such a description could just as easily apply to it.

March 2018