Special thanks to Wesley Stace, Victor Lewis, and Manfred Eicher for quotes in the New Yorker Culture Desk profile “A Lifetime of Carla Bley.”
Rob Schwimmer gave invaluable Bley guidance including loaning me scores to Escalator and Tropic Appetites. Gavin Bryars’s Gramophone article can be found at Gavin’s website; the moment where he tells me about 3/4 for Piano and Orchestra is in the DTM interview. Between them Rob and Gavin are unquestionably the “godfathers” of my recent Bley studies.
However, as mentioned in the piece, once I settled down to really work, the biography Carla Bley by Amy C. Beal was the most helpful resource.
Very, very special thanks to Steve Swallow, the point man for all things WATT related. The WATT website designed by Karen Mantler is astonishing.
The first draft of “A Lifetime of Carla Bley” was 7000 words; it then was trimmed down to less than 3000.
(Even bursting the seams at 7000, somehow there wasn’t room for a mention of The Ballad of the Fallen, which for me is the greatest of the Liberation Music Orchestra albums. Certainly it had the most impact: I can sing along with most all of side A. However, I did include Fallen on my list of 50 ECM albums.)
What follows are the best bits from the profile that didn’t make the final cut, including a listener’s guide to essentially every Carla Bley album after Escalator and 3/4 for Piano and Orchestra. There is a certain amount of unavoidable overlap between this page, the interview, and the Culture Desk.
One can purchase the bound volume “Early Short Pieces (1958-1964)” from the WATT website for twelve dollars. It contains fifteen avant-garde compositions familiar to anyone who loves the divergent currents of early 60s jazz. Almost all of them were recorded by Paul Bley, beginning with what Paul claimed was his first worthy album, “Footloose,” but also on other now-canonical LPs like “Closer,” “Barrage,” and “Turning Point.”
“Ida Lupino” and “Jesus Maria” are in the bound volume “Songs Without Words (1961 – 1975),” for sale at WATT for fifteen dollars.
The first American distributor for ECM was New Music Distribution Service. In time the tables were turned, and ECM became the distributor of WATT recordings.
Gavin Bryars makes the intriguing comment about her huge discography, “Each album, of course, contains a diverse set of pieces but each album too contains at least one masterpiece.” In the streaming era, all of Carla’s output is easy to hear. It was a pleasure to go through everything and look for some of the masterpieces.
“Dinner Music” The funk supergroup Stuff played gigs in upstate New York close to WATT headquarters. Carla fell in love and wrote an album around them. The title is a reference to the idea of functional music espoused by Brian Eno. It’s a challenging listen, mainly because Stuff didn’t really understand the aesthetic: later on Richard Tee told Carla he thought they were making backing tracks for a group of girl singers. However, Roswell Rudd’s declamation of “A New Hymn” has undeniable beauty.
“European Tour 1977” One of the best and most consistent Bley discs features a few unruly English musicians (Carla called them “very bad boys of questionable character”) interfacing with American giants like Rudd and Andrew Cyrille. (It might be noted that going from Steve Gadd to Andrew Cyrille in the course of two albums spans quite a distance.) NRBQ pianist Terry Adams offers some fabulous Thelonious Monk-style cadenzas. I have a sentimental attachment to “Star-Spangled Banner and other Patriotic Songs,” for when I heard the minor-key “Star-Spangled” in high school it went inside my psyche and exploded.
“Musique Mechanique” The title work is in three parts, the first of which has sour triadic harmony over an English music hall oom-pah beat. For half a century Kurt Weill has been given a namecheck for this style but Bley says she never heard much Weill before reading her reviews. At this point it is safe to say that if a jazz musician plays in this manner now, the logical comment is, “In the style of Carla Bley.” The basic sheet music to “Part one” is available for free download at WATT, and provides insight into how a group of talented improvisors take over and amplify a score. (“Part two” of “Mechanique” is a thrilling rock ballad with Roswell Rudd screaming/singing and metronome.)
“Social Studies” offers a brilliant “Copyright Royalties,” one of Bley’s first takes on conventional jazz. For a long time there’s no bass, Earl McIntrye’s tuba grounds a rather Ellingtonian atmosphere and brilliant loose clarinet solo by Tony Dagradi.
“Live!” There was a circus atmosphere to the Bley band music of this era: a logical meeting point of jazz, rock, humor, and theatre. It works on record, but it was wildly successful in performance. Everyone who saw the group on tour says, ‘They were having so much fun.” (Frankly, the long solos of most jazz in the wake of Miles Davis and John Coltrane usually work better live than on record, anyway.) Still, it was not just party music. Bley’s next trombone icon after Roswell Rudd was Gary Valente, who stops the universe with his gospel declamation on “The Lord is Listenin’ to Ya, Hallelujah!”
“I Hate to Sing” Jazz has always had a comic element, but few discs celebrate goofing off as extensively as “I Hate to Sing.” Drummer D. Sharpe’s greatest contribution to the discography are his discs with Bley. She says, “I just loved him at first sight and first sound. He was from the rock and roll world. D. Sharpe dressed really great. He had a cool demeanor about him. He looked so different. I liked him the way he was physically. Then he would use two loaves of Italian bread or something to take a solo. He had a good sense of humor. I thought he had a nice groove, too.” For the title track Sharpe steps forward to “sing.” Sui Generis.
After so many albums that emphasized humor and avant-garde, Bley shocked her fans by embracing a smooth-jazz and Motown influence. Her bio dryly notes that it was, “Not well received by the jazz establishment or her public.” Younger generations have listened to this period with interest, and one way to prove you are hip on the tough younger Brooklyn jazz scene is to show awareness and appreciation of the three Bley “smooth” albums. One reason they are successful is the presence of drum great Victor Lewis. While still best known for his canonical straight-ahead jazz performances with Woody Shaw, Stan Getz, and Kenny Barron,, one of Lewis’s first New York gigs was with David Sanborn. Lewis’s keen awareness of subtle pop and and funk beats is heard to best effect with Carla Bley. Lewis told me: “It was a wonderful experience playing w Carla. She always hand-picked her musicians that have a certain character. She lives and breathes artistry!”
“Heavy Heart” is transitioning the sound, there is still some madcap energy present, with vital Steve Slagle solos in the manner of his playing on the previous live discs. Victor Lewis isn’t the only ringer. Kenny Kirkland’s insane burn on “Starting Again” is a bright moment a few years before tenures with Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and Sting made him the most beloved jazz pianist of a generation.
“Night-glo” is co-credited to Steve Swallow, her old friend, collaborator and now, new romantic partner. Swallow was deep into Marvin Gaye. If “Genuine Tong Funeral” is Bley’s “Beatles” album, then perhaps “Night-Glo” is Bley’s “Gaye” album. However the unexpected harmonic phrases could only be by this composer. The title track has Swallow’s serene melodic electric bass in the lead supported by funky horns.
“Sextet” has better production values: The way Lewis’s drums are recorded exhibit the height of 1985 studio know-how. Hiram Bullock’s bluesy and intelligent guitar is also displayed to good effect. In its way “Sextet” a true classic, boasting a bona-fide masterpiece, “Lawns,” with a mesmerizing piano solo by Larry Willls. Bley says of Wills here, “That style of playing was just like velvet.”
“Duets” After giving so much space to Willis and Kirkland, Bley must have felt it was time for her to up her game as pianist. “Baby Baby” shows that she’s a natural inheritor of the Earl Hines to Thelonious Monk to Herbie Nichols tradition. “Romantic Notions #3” sounds like she tipped Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” on its side and found whatever bits were left in the box. At this point is becomes obvious that Swallow is going to be the key personnel member going forward. The two bassists most associated with Carla Bley are Charlie Haden and Steve Swallow: Talk about the A-team!
“Fleur Carnivore” To some extent we are back on firmer ground with another high-energy live date. Lew Soloff was a legend in the trumpet world for his all-encompassing stylistic reach and superb technical know-how, but his most compelling improvisations might be documented with Bley, for example on the brilliant effusion on the uptempo “The Girl who Cried Champagne.” Bley says that Soloff was, “A musical creature of the top tribe. He said, My style is I can play everything and anything. So I said, well, you’re not going to get very far in the musical world without some kind of a defect.”
Sadly the days of “defective” and pure musicians like Don Cherry, Gato Barberi, and Roswell Rudd are gone for Bley. Instead she would get excellent modern players who – at least in comparison with the 60s free jazz masters — really could play anything. “Fleur Carnivore” also marks the Bley debut of English saxophonist Andy Sheppard, a charismatic player who can both rhapsodize and purr.
“The Very Big Carla Bley Band” is strongest on “Strange Arrangement,” which offers plenty of Bley thumbprints and breathy Sheppard solo. The first statement of “All Fall Down” is also strikingly charismatic. The rest of the disc has Bley in dialogue with the comparatively bland sensibility of circa-1990 modern jazz and not always winning the argument.
“Go Together” The duo albums with Swallow are enjoyable but have less impact than the larger ensembles. Probably they are best seen as raw documentation of the couple “in the workshop.” Here a mellow performance of “Mother of the Dead Man” (first heard on “A Genuine Tong Funeral”) is an obvious highlight.
“Big Band Theory” includes a rare cover, in this case a tribute to one of Bley’s biggest influences. She says of Charles Mingus, “Some of his songs are the best of the batch of good post-bebop writing. I found a mistake in ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and corrected it. He was dead by then. It was a little turnaround thing that wasn’t quite working, and I got it to work. At that point, if a guy was dead and needed anything to be done, I was the person to do it.” Gary Valente shines in extended feature.
“Songs with Legs” It was smart to add Andy Sheppard to the core duo. Another cover, this time of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso,” offers insight into Bley’s “just slightly wrong” harmonic perspective. Her comping behind Sheppard is marvelous.
“Goes to Church” is a return to form, the first essential Bley disc since “Sextet.” She has figured out how integrate modern, “correct” players into something more idiosyncratic and personal. Karen Mantler’s harmonica solos are excellent, Bley suggests she is, “A chip off the old block.” A central medley is especially striking. Carl Ruggles’s Stravinky-ish hymn “Exaltation” leads into “Religious Experience” with Wolfgang Puschnig’s expressionist alto saxophone repeatedly interrupted by an absurd yet moving quote of Handel’s “Hallelulah,” linking finally to Bley’s own dominating fanfare “Major.”
“Fancy Chamber Music” Bley’s biographer Beal has an especially valuable comment on this album: “Despite the silliness of the recording’s presentation — a piano-playing Bley in a formal black dress and elbow-length fingerless gloves graces the cover — and its overt mockery of classical music’s elitism and self-conscious rituals, Bley’s pieces of “Fancy Chamber Music” are serious compositions in their own right.”
“4 X 4” is comparatively light and funky with four horns and four rhythm. Unlike earlier double keyboard Bley bands, Larry Golding is on soulful and virtuoso organ while the leader holds it down on piano. “Baseball” is a classic Carla Bley analysis of commonplace material.
“Looking for America” Bley’s arrangements and compositions for Charlie Haden would often have a political theme. This album looks at her country with a sympathetic and jaunty eye, although the lens always darkens by the end. Four short pieces about “Mother” are prime Bley, and “Fast Lane” is one of her most convincing uptempo compositions. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” has extreme effects undercut by funky interludes that would be more successful live.
“The Lost Chords” For the first time, Bley has a quartet with a modern swinging drummer, Billy Drummond. Her response to the situation is to write harmonically dense music in the modern jazz tradition. Apparently these are the “lost” chords, for she never used jazz harmony this much before. A good disc but the one with Paolo Fresu below is even better.
“Appearing Nightly” Bley doubles down on jazz, now with a full band and full nostalgia. Bley was born in 1936, a year after Benny Goodman’s performance of “King Porter Stomp” became the catalyst for the Swing Era. “Appearing Nightly” was recorded in 2006, when Bley was 70. She certainly has earned the right to be nostalgic, and the absurd mash-up of standards that begins “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid” is a fabulous blindfold test. In the end the highlight of the disc might not be the originals but an arrangement of “I Hadn’t Anyone Until You” that can’t settle on a home key — a metaphor, perhaps, for Bley’s relationship with conventional jazz.
Nostalgia doesn’t make much of an impression on the young. Most of Bley’s 21-century work has been comparatively overlooked in the jazz press and by new musicians seeking the latest sounds. However, the three most recent projects bearing her name as leader are exceptionally strong and deserve wider appreciation.
“The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu” Bley says of the Italian trumpeter, “Paolo Fresu had a great sound, a little like Julie Tippets. That kind of a sound. A rasp. Beautiful sound.” Indeed, Fresu is an update of Miles Davis and Chet Baker, a vulnerable poet. Andy Sheppard’s muscular tenor is a good foil, and Billy Drummond sounds like he’s having a great time powering the new and still idiosyncratic compositions. Bley herself smoothly plays charismatic blues piano on “Liver of Life.”
“Carla’s Christmas Carols” Many musicians get their first counterpoint training by reading through the old hymnals. Bley has always loved carols and even had a job arranging them for the sheet music anthology “A Wreath of Carols” in the 1960s. Cheekily, she included her own “Jesus Maria” in that now-obscure folio. “Jesus Maria” reappears on this disc, as well as a hard-bop original, “Hell’s Bells.” However the treasures are the sincere but creative brass quintet arrangements of ancient material. For a Christmas album, 10/10.
“Trios” and “Andando el Tiempo” have the working group with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow under the watchful eye of Manfred Eicher in the high end RSI Svizzera studio in Lugano. The first release featured fresh arrangements of older material. “Wildlife” in particular is given a new kind of life when compared to the first recording on “Night-Glo.” Bley’s piano has never been so well-recorded.
“Andando el Tiempo” translates as, “with the passing of time,” and the new suite leading off the second Lugano recording seems to view the continuum from a great height. A sense of history is palpable. One can imagine Bley and Eicher sharing a glass and thinking about how they have both done so much to shape a certain way to integrate European classical music into American-based improvisation, a process that began with Giuffre’s tracking “Jesus Maria” all those years ago.
Carla Bley Extravaganza:
1.) A Lifetime of Carla Bley (at the New Yorker Culture Desk)
3.) Carla, Carla, Carla, Carla, Carla (guide to the discography)
4.) Accomplishing Escalator over the Hill (by Carla Bley)