Pianist Paul Bley started his concert 10 minutes early at International House on Saturday night. After a few percussive chords, he started railing about how the piano was out of tune even though a tuned Steinway had been delivered the day before, per his contract. Then he reminded listeners how he had trained at Juilliard before walking stiffly off stage.

So began an unusual night for a living legend of jazz. The Montreal-born Bley, 75, has played with everyone from Charlie Parker to Charles Mingus. His IAI label recorded guitarist Pat Metheny's debut. And his piano work has resulted in several landmark recordings, including Open, to Love on ECM.

So it was disconcerting to watch him perform outtakes of King Lear. Drummer Richard Poole soon took the stage, tapping a kit with sticks, tom-toms and finally brushes - by himself. Poole, also a pianist who has recorded with saxophonist George Garzone, describes himself as a teacher. While his drumming seemed perfunctory, it was mercifully short.

Then Bley shuffled to the piano for a 35-minute set that was magisterial at times. He would slap at notes; you could hear his fingernails hitting the keys, striking odd combinations that seemed beyond even his experimental ken.

Yet there was no denying the brilliance of this brief performance.

Snatches of standards would waft through the room as if a faint radio station had come into range. Bley would draw forth a burst of melody, sometimes overly loud, and then take it to far-off zones. With the pedal down, he would offer up a muddied run, launch into a free-jazz skein, and then layer in the blues.

Sonny Rollins' "Pent Up House" got the full treatment, and it seemed wistful in context, a touchstone to stronger days, when Bley and Rollins were collaborators.

So the concert, the first of four "duets" here by the Ars Nova Workshop, had both infirmity and majesty. Bley grabbed the piano's rim with both hands to rise and take a bow. It felt like a coda to an amazing life.

Contact staff writer Karl Stark
at 215-854-5363 or kstark@phillynews.com.