A Lifetime of Carla Bley
Every jazz fan knows the name of Carla Bley, but her relentless productivity and constant reinvention can make it difficult to grasp her contribution to music. I began listening to her in high school when I was enamored with the pianist Paul Bley, whose seminal nineteen-sixties LPs were filled with Carla Bley compositions. (The two were married.) My small home-town library also had a copy of “The Carla Bley Band: European Tour 1977,” a superb disk of rowdy horn soloists carousing through instantly memorable Bley compositions and arrangements. Some pieces change you forever. The deadly serious yet hilarious “Spangled Banner Minor and Other Patriotic Songs,” from that 1977 recording, celebrates and defaces several nationalistic themes, beginning with the American national anthem recast as Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata. From the first notes onward, I was never quite the same again.
The novelist and musician Wesley Stace has a similar story: “Aged sixteen, and full only of rock and pop music, I came upon Carla Bley by chance through a Pink Floyd solo project, Nick Mason’s ‘Fictitious Sports,’ which I only bought because the vocals were by my favorite singer, Robert Wyatt, once of Soft Machine. It’s a Carla Bley album in all but name: her songs embellished with brilliant and witty arrangements. I wanted to hear more. ‘Social Studies’ (also from 1981) thus became the first jazz album I ever bought, opening up a whole world I knew nothing about. ‘Utviklingssang’ is perfect, all gorgeous melody and abstraction, no words required. She’s everything I want from instrumental music.”
In the last half decade, many of Bley’s remaining peers from the early years have died: Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Roswell Rudd, Ornette Coleman, Paul Motian. At eighty-two, Bley is still composing and practicing the piano every day. But it also felt like it was high time to rent a car, visit a hero, and try to get a few stories on the official record.
Bley and her partner, the celebrated bassist Steve Swallow (and another living link to the revolutionary years of jazz) live in an upstate compound tucked away near Willow, New York. When I drove up, Bley and Swallow were just coming back from their daily walk through the woodland. Their lawn boasts an old oak tree and a massive chain-link dinosaur made by Steve Heller at Fabulous Furniture, in nearby Boiceville. The home offers enough room for two powerful artists and their personal libraries, not to mention striking paintings by Dorothée Mariano and Bill Beckman. Bley’s upstairs study is stocked with hundreds of her scores and an upright piano, on which she played me her latest opus, a sour ballad a bit in the Monk tradition, with just enough unusual crinkling in the corners to prevent it from being too square. When we sat down to talk, Bley proved to be witty and surreal, just like her music. (Swallow is the house barista and fact checker.)
Bley’s early development as an independent spirit is well documented in the excellent 2011 book “Carla Bley,” by Amy C. Beal. I began a little further along, and asked her about Count Basie in the late nineteen-fifties. “Count Basie was playing at Birdland, Basin Street, and the Jazz Gallery when I was working as a cigarette girl,” she said. “I got to hear him more than anyone else, and it was an education.” Basie is still her favorite pianist: “He’s the final arbiter of how to play two notes. The distance and volume between two notes is always perfect.”
At the end of the decade, her husband, an associate of Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Rollins, wanted to play more as a trio pianist but lacked material. One day Paul Bley came to Carla and said, “I need six tunes by tomorrow night.” There’s an obvious thread of European classical music in early Bley compositions, and this fit perfectly with the sixties jazz avant-garde. Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is closer to a Mahler dirge than to Duke Ellington; Charles Mingus gave a deconstructed blues composition the European-style catalogue number “Folk Forms No. 1.” Many of Bley’s own pieces from that era have atonal gestures and abstract titles like “Ictus” and “Syndrome.”
Among the many musicians listening carefully was Keith Jarrett, who told me that Paul Bley was, “Sort of like Ahmad with certain kinds of drugs.” Ahmad Jamal’s biggest hit was the D-major dance “Poinciana,” a bland old standard given immortality by Jamal’s rich jazz harmony and the drummer Vernel Fournier’s fresh take on a New Orleans second-line beat. Paul Bley’s recordings of Carla’s famous melody “Ida Lupino” have a G-major dance with a new kind of surreal perspective. When comparing “Poinciana” and “Ida Lupino” back to back, Jarrett’s comment—“certain kinds of drugs”—makes sense.
However, while Ahmad Jamal had to use plenty of imagination when rescoring “Poinciana,” Paul Bley just needed to get the paper from his wife and read it down: Bley’s piano score of “Ida Lupino,” with inner voices and canonic echoes, is complete. Like many jazzers, I first heard of the film-noir icon Ida Lupino thanks to Bley’s indelible theme. I finally got to ask her about the title. “I just saw a few movies she did, and I thought she was sort of stripped and basic,” Bley said. “She didn’t have all the sex appeal that a female star should have. She was sort of serious. Maybe I felt a bond with her for that reason. I wanted to be serious. It wasn’t anything to do with her being the first female director. I learned that later.”
Another significant early Bley work is “Jesus Maria,” first recorded by Jimmy Giuffre with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow for Verve, in 1961. Among the listeners inspired by this trio was Manfred Eicher, who reissued these recordings for ECM, in 1990. The reissue leads off with the rather classical “Jesus Maria,” where the pretty notes seem to suspend in the air, suggesting the famous “ECM sound” several years before the label was founded. I asked Eicher about Bley’s early compositions and he said, “There are so many of them, each as well crafted as pieces by Satie or Mompou—or Thelonious Monk for that matter. Carla belongs in that tradition of radical originality.”
Bley was a radical, but she also sought structure. She told me about the early-sixties avant-garde: “In free playing, everybody played as loud as they could and as fast as they could and as high as they could. I liked them, but there was also what Max Gordon said about a bunch of guys screaming their heads off: ‘Call the pound.’ I think the music needed a setting. Just as it was, I thought free jazz needed work.” A key turned in the lock when Bley heard the roiling, church-inspired experimental tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, who she says was, “Maudlin! Maudlin in the most wonderful way. He gave me license to play something that was really corny and love it.” Another watershed was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles, a suite of songs that form a bigger picture. “An artist friend of mine came over one day with this album,” Bley told me. “He said, ‘Jazz is dead. All the artists are listening to this. We don’t listen to jazz anymore. This is it.’ ”
Albert Ayler and the Beatles fed directly into Bley’s first long-form composition, “A Genuine Tong Funeral,” recorded by Gary Burton. Fifty years later, “A Genuine Tong Funeral” still sounds fresh; in 1968, it must have seemed incomprehensibly new. Amusingly, the very young drummer on the record, Bob Moses, was appalled by the aesthetic and demanded to be listed on the jacket under the pseudonym “Lonesome Dragon.” (Moses would go on to become a supporter, repeatedly playing and teaching Bley’s music in ensuing decades.)
Bley’s harmonic palette is generally simpler and leaner than most advanced jazz harmony. In addition to the Beatles, Bley told me about loving American music like bluegrass and gospel. For an avant-garde composer, rock, bluegrass, and gospel are easy meat when making a mash-up. Any melody or gesture will work against these triadic textures, just like Charles Ives sending a cheerful marching band through a dissonant symphony.
There’s nothing more Ivesian in the jazz canon than Bley’s next project, Charlie Haden’s “The Liberation Music Orchestra,” especially when the chorale “We Shall Overcome” overtakes the grotesque splatter of “Circus ’68 ’69.” Elsewhere on the album, Carla’s bittersweet palette is a perfect frame for a murderers’ row of the best soloists of the era. She says of Haden, “Aside from music, we liked the same color, or we would like the same painting or the same painter. We just had similar taste, which came in really handy later when he hired me to do the arranging for his records, because I knew what he liked, and he knew I would do what he liked.”
By this time, Carla was ready to work on a large-scale project of her own. The result was one of the biggest unified compositions jazz has ever produced, a kind of surreal jazz opera with a libretto by Paul Haines, “Escalator over the Hill.” As Beal writes in her biography:
All dimensions of “Escalator over the Hill” are extravagant. The long (a triple album, nearly two hours) stylistically eclectic work fuses singers and players from all over the musical map—fifty-three individuals participated in the recording, including some of the most productive and original jazz and rock musicians working at the time. . . . The work as a whole seems simultaneously to assimilate and annihilate rock gestures, jazz harmonies, and classical structures. By nature of its absolute autonomy, “Escalator over the Hill” also seems to thumb its nose at all musical authorities and institutions, particularly the recording industry. In this sense it is perhaps the quintessential antiestablishment statement of its time.
Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, and Gato Barbieri all participated in “The Liberation Music Orchestra,” but they sound even more inspired on “Escalator over the Hill.” This was the beginning of a long tradition: great horn soloists playing their very best in a Carla Bley band. “Escalator” also offers some one-off vocal performances from stars like Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt as well as general chaos from dozens of friends and family members.
“If anyone wanted to be on the album, they could be on it,” Carla explained. She used “everybody, anyone who walked in off the street,” saying, “Sure, you can be on ‘Escalator Over the Hill.’ ” In time, Bley’s daughter, Karen Mantler, only four at the time of her vocal début on “Escalator,” would become Bley’s copyist and play great harmonica solos with the Bley band.
Bley’s second husband, the trumpeter and composer Mike Mantler, was the driving force behind the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra in the sixties. The first JCOA Records release was a landmark collection of madhouse free-jazz concertos, “The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra.” The second was “Escalator over the Hill,” recorded between 1968 and 1971. The couple joined official forces for a new label, WATT, which in 1974 released a marvelous pendant to “Escalator,” Bley’s “Tropic Appetites,” with lyrics by Haines and sung by the legendary British chanteuse Julie Driscoll Tippetts—“I thought the texture of her voice, the timbre, was unique and incredibly beautiful.” When you form a label, you need distribution, so, while they were at it, the founders of WATT set up New Music Distribution Service, which, in addition to promoting WATT, helped all sorts of new international music reach New York and the rest of America.
Bley’s piano playing was “composer’s piano,” in the tradition of Gil Evans, rarely taking a star turn with a rhythm section. The best place to hear her stretch out from the early years is a kind of concerto, “3/4 for Piano and Orchestra,” which has been performed by Keith Jarrett, Frederic Rzewski, and Ursula Oppens and recorded by Bley herself for WATT’s third release. She likes the piece but doesn’t love the LP: “In editing, I should have matched the tempos better.” On a recent listen, I discerned no awkward joins: the only obvious flaw is a notably out-of-tune piano, but this defect might just add to the off-kilter charm of Bley’s rhapsodic improvisations.
The first person to single out “3/4 for Piano and Orchestra” to me was the composer Gavin Bryars, a longtime Bley fan and the author of an excellent 1997 essay on her music published in Gramophone. In Bley’s huge discography, according to Bryars, “each album, of course, contains a diverse set of pieces, but each album too contains at least one masterpiece.” The music since “3/4 for Piano and Orchestra” has indeed been astoundingly diverse. One of the jobs of a jazz musician is to reflect her present day. While Bley has never been needlessly trendy, the raw material of “right now” is always there. She told me her appropriations of different styles were based on “infatuations” but also warned that, “if you come along with an infatuation, you don’t deserve to play it. You’ve spent your time doing other things.”
Certainly, no Carla Bley album sounds like anyone else could have created it. For a time, she concentrated on putting on hot live performances, determined to entertain all listeners. “It was sort of like a sideshow. I liked to do outrageous things.” This is the era that so impressed young Wesley Stace and myself, and culminated in the comic masterpiece “I Hate to Sing.”
Two of her most important collaborators were the trombonist Gary Valente and the drummer D. Sharpe—wonderful musicians who are at their best on Carla Bley LPs. Valente has recorded some of the great trombone solos in all of jazz, for example, on Bley’s original gospel number “The Lord is Listenin’ to Ya, Hallelujah!” Sharpe died tragically young, in 1987. Bley remembers, “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.” After so many albums that emphasized humor and the avant-garde, in the mid-eighties Bley shocked her fans by embracing a smooth-jazz and Motown influence. Her Web site bio notes dryly that it was, “Not well received by the jazz establishment or her public.” She joked to me, “We wanted to be on a national quiet-storm channel.”
These records were maligned at the time, but they have aged well. The drum great Victor Lewis’s command of subtle pop and funk beats is heard to best effect on the masterpiece disk “Sextet.” Lewis told me, “It was a wonderful experience playing with Carla. She always hand-picked her musicians that have a certain character. She lives and breathes artistry!” In the nineties, Bley returned to big-band writing with horns. A key player was the late Lew Soloff, a legend in the trumpet world for his all-encompassing stylistic reach and overwhelming technical know-how. According to Bley, 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” musicians like the sixties’ idiosyncratic free-jazz masters were in the past. Instead, Bley’s big bands of the nineties were stocked with excellent modern players who really could play anything. This doesn’t always pay off: there are stretches of later Bley where competent soloists are given a lot space and just don’t have the grit to lift the material into immortality. But, as Bryars suggests, there is always one masterpiece. On “The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church,” it is a medley. Carl Ruggles’s hymn “Exaltation” leads into “Religious Experience” with Wolfgang Puschnig’s expressionist alto saxophone repeatedly interrupted by an absurd yet moving quote of Handel’s “Hallelujah,” linking finally to Bley’s own dominating fanfare “Major.”
In recent decades, Bley’s own piano is finally being heard in an exposed context, mostly duo and trio with Steve Swallow. Probably nobody else in jazz began practicing the piano at such a late date in their career: “I do the fifty-one Brahms exercises every day,” Bley said. However, her jazz pianism is not a virtuoso European quotation but a dry and lean thunk in the tradition of Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk. “Romantic Notions #3,” from 1988, sounds like she tipped Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” on its side and found whatever bits were left in the box. In the last two years, Bley has also been active with the trumpet star Dave Douglas, who formed the Riverside quartet with Chet Doxas, Jim Doxas, and Steve Swallow, which was specifically inspired by Jimmy Giuffre. Their second album, “The New National Anthem,” was a tribute to Bley, after which she joined the group on tour. She told me that Douglas is encouraging of her efforts to play without any chord changes or obvious harmonic reference, which (incredibly) is the first time she’s doing that kind of thing since the early sixties.
The title of her latest album, “Andando el Tiempo,” means “with the passing of time.” At the end of our interview, Bley said, “That was very interesting, thinking of all those people in the past.” As I drove home, I listened to Bley’s most recent big-band writing, heard on the final “Liberation Music Orchestra” disk, “Time/Life,” released after Charlie Haden’s death. The title track is especially moving. A lonely chorale backed by Matt Wilson’s marching snare drum gives way to a brilliant saxophone solo by Tony Malaby, a musician who threads modern professionalism with the old avant-garde. Bley said “those people in the past,” but her work lights the way for those looking to join the past to the future.