May 11, 2016
Carla Bley turns 80 years old today. Her various creative incarnations - composer, band leader, side person, singer – have all been at the highest level, and she shows no sign of stopping now.
So let us now praise Carla Bley.
She entered the jazz consciousness as a composer. Encouraged by her first husband, pianist Paul Bley, she wrote strong compositions that were quickly recorded by the likes of Jimmy Guiffre, Don Ellis, George Russell, and most memorably, the Paul Bley Quintet on Barrage. Buoyed by that success, she became an integral part of the Jazz Composers Guild, a musical “think tank” that for ten years was a catalyst for the avant-garde, beginning in the mid-60’s. With trumpeter Michael Mantler, Ms. Bley helped create the Jazz Composers Guild Orchestra, which featured innovative soloists like Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell, and Cecil Taylor. On her own, she wrote, played organ and piano and conducted Gary Burton’s seminal A Genuine Tong Funeral, an album that predated Bitches Brew as jazz-rock fusion.
It was with the Jazz Composers Guild Orchestra that Carla’s most ambitious work was realized – the “chronotransduction” known as Escalator over the Hill, a collaboration with Paul Haines and Mantler. Something of a jazz opera, it took three years to record, finally appearing in 1971 as a 3-record box set with extensive lyrics and liner notes. It is hard today to realize the impact this work had on the music scene, bringing together seemingly disparate genres like European art music and cabaret; free jazz; Indian raga; and improvisatory rock. Artists from Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt, to John McLaughlin, Charlie Haden, Gato Barbieri, Roswell Rudd, Paul Motian and of course Ms. Bley and Mantler, brought a difficult and sometimes thrilling score to life. One of the few jazz recordings to catch the eye of Rolling Stone magazine, Jonathan Cott wrote in those pages that the album was “an international musical encounter of the first order.” The next year, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for music composition.
Whether she was working with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra; dabbling in rock (Jack Bruce, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, Golden Palominos) ; or collaborating with long-time companion Steve Swallow the music she makes could never be pigeon-holed in type or genre, more so than perhaps any artist since Duke Ellington. The albums that she released under her name were constantly shifting sounds – Big Bands, Trios, Sextets and Duets. She re-interprets and reimagines her old work with grace, and continues to write and perform new work of the highest order, often in a keyboard style that is uniquely her own. She continues her satisfying relationship with ECM with the release today of Andando el Tiempo, a trio record with Swallow and one of her favorite saxophonists, Andy Sheppard. It shows an artist still growing, still exploring, still a joy to discover.
Let’s celebrate the creative work of Carla Bley with Podcast 537, featuring music selected from the body of work that bears her name as bandleader, including:
Carla Bley and Her Remarkable Big Band - "Greasy Gravy"
Carla Bley Trio - "Andando el tiempo: Camino al Volv"
Carla Bley - "Sing Me Softly of the Blues"
Carla Bley and Steve Swallow - "Walking Batteriewoman"
Carla Bley and the Lost Chords Quartet - "Three Banana"
Carla Bley - "The Girl Who Cried Champagne Parts 1-3"
Carla Bley Big Band - "Who Will Rescue You?"
Carla Bley Sextet - "Healing Power"
Carla Bley - "Nothing"