In an alternate universe, Carla Bley could have made a lot of money in film soundtracks. Many of her most famous records sound like cues in a spy movie or some darkly comedic thriller. Instead, the composer and pianist worked off of her own stories, following her own fiercely independent muse. Starting out her musical life as a self-described “cigarette girl” at NYC’s Birdland jazz club, Bley—born Lovella May Borg in Oakland in 1938—progressed from being a shy pianist and songwriter-for-hire, to an in-demand composer and arranger, and eventually, to a visionary bandleader. Today, she ranks as one of the most revered jazz big-band writers of the post-bebop era.
She cut her teeth writing tunes for radically-minded pianist Paul Bley (her husband for a few years) and co-organizing the NYC-based Jazz Composers Guild with avant-gardists like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Milford Graves, and Andrew Cyrille in the early ‘60s, but Bley was always wary of free jazz, on the look out for something slightly different. “In free playing everybody played as loud as they could and as fast as they could and as high as they could,” Bley told Ethan Iverson in 2018. “I liked them, but there was also what Max Gordon said about a bunch of guys screaming their heads off: ‘Call the pound.’”
As much as the jazz of her time, Bley loved its pop music. She was more inspired by Motown and Joe Cocker than John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Bley’s polyglot sensibilities and contrarian streak resulted in a disparate and often bizarre discography. Her breakout is one of the most ambitious conceptual jazz works ever written: 1971’s heady and unsettling triple-LP Escalator Over the Hill. Described in the liner notes a a “chronotransduction,” it has to be heard to be believed. There is narration, a cast of characters, an arsenal of collaborators from the vanguard of the free-improv world—Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Paul Motian, and more—but also Linda Ronstadt and Cream’s Jack Bruce. Allegedly, 100 hours of tape were recorded. Bley continued in this operatic vein with 1974’s narration-driven Tropic Appetites, and while its followup—1977’s Dinner Music—was not a concept album like its predecessors, it was just as stylistically schizophrenic, citing soul, disco, bar-band blues, and ‘50s rock. On it, one of her most famous ‘60s tunes, “Ida Lupino,” became something that Barry White could have sung over.
One of the most charming aspects of Carla Bley as a personality, as well as part of what makes her career so hard to wrap one’s head around, is that she wasn’t very particular about the presentation or accreditation of the material she wrote. Many of her most impressive achievements are hidden behind other people’s names: for instance, she composed vibraphonist Gary Burton’s 1967 psychedelic suite A Genuine Tong Funeral and arranged and co-wrote bassist Charlie Haden’s 1970 political concept album Liberation Music Orchestra. She contributed substantially to a series of Escalator-indebted theatrical works helmed by Michael Mantler, the Austrian trumpeter and bandleader (and her second husband). There are plenty of weird anomalies, too: she once wrote an album of self-described “punk songs” and bestowed them upon Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, who cast Robert Wyatt as his lead singer and released them as Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports in 1981.
But in the late 1980s, Bley’s penchant for extreme density and high-concept experiments began to mellow. She recorded with quiet combos as well as large ensembles. Her primary collaborator became her old-friend-turned-partner Steve Swallow, the bassist who had been one of the first to champion her compositions on his own early solo records and in an influential trio with Paul Bley and the clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre in the early ‘60s. Together, Carla and Steve began to frequently record duo and trio albums, including beautiful and low-stakes outings like 1988’s Duets, 1992’s Go Together, and 1994’s Songs With Legs. The LPs recalled the restrained aesthetic of the Giuffre trio in many ways: drumless and at times reminiscent of modernist classical music (Satie, Ravel, and Stravinsky in particular). But the Carla-Steve records are less resistant to traditional jazz sensibilities than Giuffre’s, and more laid-back in their delivery, conjuring the image of Bley and Swallow quietly jamming in their living room.
“Steve and I just liked music that made you feel good,” Bley told Iverson. “Victor Lewis used to say, ‘I got through my whole divorce by listening to Chaka Khan,’ and we thought, wow, that’s so cool, to help somebody get through a divorce. Couldn’t we do something like that? It seems to me the world could use more music that really lifted a person up.”
Bley and Swallow’s new record Life Goes On follows in the lighthearted tradition of their earlier albums. It also features sax player Andy Sheppard, who has now appeared on all of Bley’s records for the last 25 years. Life Goes On is the trio’s third consecutive release, and Bley’s third ECM Records lp. (She owned an affiliate label, WATT, and produced her own records there for years.) Compared to the previous two LPs—2013’s Trios and 2016’s Andando El Tiempo—Life Goes On is more playful, with more storytelling in the music. The title track contemplates mortality, beginning as a fractured blues with jokey call-and-response between the three players. But eventually, the facade starts to crumble: Bley’s chords turn to melancholy, sinking further and further down the keyboard, with no clear destination in mind. By the end of the suite, “And Then One Day,” the music (fittingly) loses tempo entirely, devolving into stray splats of piano dissonance and wispy sax phrases that are more air than pitch.
But as on all of Bley’s greatest records, the silliest compositions on Life Goes On are never too gimmicky; they culminate in moments of impressionistic beauty. In he third movement of “Beautiful Telephones,” which is a Trump send-up of sorts, snippets from The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and other patriotic anthems pop up in the middle of a queasy bossa nova. Eventually, balmy folk and gospel detours provide a source of comfort. The expertly executed hairpin turns in Bley pieces like this one make clear how carefully choreographed her music is, even when it sounds casual or effortless.
In some sense, it feels like Bley’s solo career has been bookended by extremes. In her ‘70s and early ‘80s work, the funk rhythm sections and walls of brass players made subtle dynamics difficult; in her recent work, the music sometimes seems at risk of fading away to nothing. In many ways, though, these trio records form one of the better possible introductions to Bley’s artistry, serving as microcosms of a musical personality that is exceptionally difficult to distill. They expose the bones of Bley’s compositional approach—pivoting away from expected landing points after lulling the listener into a comfort zone, muddying the water with an unsettling new harmony or a genre shift.
“I’m trying to be normal, to sound totally classical, but I fail,” Bley explained in a Qwest TV interview last year. “Miserably.”
The interviewer countered: “But you can’t because you’re Carla Bley.”
“I guess I do want to be Carla Bley,” she admitted.
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