Since I first came to live in London 40 years ago, there’s been a handful of American jazz favourites I’ve made a point of seeing on each and every occasion they’ve crossed the Atlantic to play a gig. It was certainly that way with both Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, and it’s still the case with Carla Bley. I’m not sure exactly when I first encountered Bley as a leader – though I recall seeing her on keyboards with the Jack Bruce Band in Cambridge, back in 1974 – but it was probably during ’83 or ’84 at the Roundhouse, with the band that gave us the albums ‘Live!’ and ‘I Want to Sing’. I’ve caught her London appearances ever since – the most recent in trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard, first at the Wigmore Hall three years ago, then at Ronnie’s in July of this year. But as enjoyable as all those concerts were, I don’t think any was as deeply affecting as her Cadogan Hall gig with the Liberation Music Orchestra on the closing night of this year’s London Jazz Festival.
Bley (photographed by Thomas Dorn with Haden, above) has been involved as player and arranger with the LMO ever since Charlie Haden first established the band in the late ’60s to express his concern at what was happening in the world, particularly the Vietnam War. Since 1969’s ‘Liberation Music Orchestra’, there have been five more albums, the latest being the recently released ‘Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)’, which features just two tracks with Haden playing, recorded in 2011; the other three Bley compositions were laid down last year, after Haden’s death but wholly in keeping with his musical and his ethical/political/environmental ideas.
When that album was recorded, or when the LJF gig was scheduled, few, probably, could have foreseen our current predicament, with Donald Trump due to take office surrounded by a host of unsavoury types seemingly bent on various forms of destruction. Introducing the concert, Ruth Cameron Haden, his partner of many years, pointed out that the LMO was now probably more relevant than ever, and that in the decades since her husband wrote ‘Song for the Whales’, little had been done to improve the prospects of that particular creature. That acknowledgement set the tone for the evening: though we were going to hear some splendid music, it wasn’t going to be just about the music. It never had been when Charlie was around, so why change?
I saw LMO under Haden’s direction a few times. And the Cadogan Hall gig was at least the equal of a 1987 Astoria show which memorably boasted Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian on stage, among others. Nearly all the musicians* in the latest line-up have been playing with LMO for a few years now – Earl McIntyre (tuba) and Vincent Chancey (French horn) even featured on Bley’s aforementioned ‘Live!’ – and they not only interact wonderfully together but are beautifully attuned to the harmonic nuances of Bley’s richly imaginative compositions and arrangements. But there was something more going on – and any extra emotional sway wasn’t due solely to the fact the band’s founder – one of the great bassists – was sadly absent. (Darak Oles did a sterling job on the instrument throughout the show’s 90 minutes, opening it with a solo to introduce a very classy version of Miles’ ‘Blue in Green’, and contributing, alongside drummer Matt Wilson and guitarist Steve Cardenas, persuasively cetacean sounds to start and close ‘Song for the Whales’. But no one could match the immediately recognisable round, singing tones that made Haden so special, and wisely Oles never attempted to.)
What gave the show its depth and strength – I confess I was sometimes moved to tears – was not just the musical expertise and invention on offer but a subtle sense of drama. About 20 minutes into the set, following the relatively upbeat ‘Not in Our Name’, the proceedings took a somewhat sombre turn, first with ‘Time/Life’, a meandering, dirge-like composition (I mean that positively!) which turns into a sorrowing funereal march; then with ‘Silent Spring’, a still more melancholy Bley tune originally written in 1966 for Steve Swallow and recorded the following year on the ‘A Genuine Tong Funeral’ album. With Chris Cheek’s tenor solo providing anguished lamentations, this felt so dark that one wondered where the concert was heading. But then, as if to pull back from despair, Bley suddenly switched to a less morose rhythm, allowing the brighter, even hopeful sound of trumpeter Michael Rodriguez (a Hispanic, Donald!) to lead the band towards a harmoniously unified coda with thundering drums.
Thereafter, with a medley starting out from an inventively polyphonous reimagining of ‘America the Beautiful’ and pausing a while beneath Ornette’s squalling ‘Skies of America’ before moving on to a gutsy, gospelly ‘Amazing Grace’, things steadily lightened, though the shadows were never entirely forgotten. Even the encore – an initially hesitant and thoughtful then increasingly forceful version of Bill Frisell’s lovely ‘Throughout’ (you can catch a previous performance of it here) – steered impressively clear of the feelgood clichés frequently saved for finales. This, undoubtedly, was a show to enjoy, but it was also a musical journey, mapped out and performed with an intelligence, heart and soul of which Haden would surely have been proud. As for the marvellous Ms Bley, I’m just looking forward to her next London visit.
‘Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings”’ is out now on Impulse. The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 to be broadcast on Jazz Now Monday 5 December.
*The musicians at Cadogan Hall were: Carla Bley, piano; Tony Mallaby, Chris Cheek, tenors; Loren Stillman, alto; Michael Rodriguez, Seneca Black, trumpets; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Earl McIntyre, tuba; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Darak Oles, double bass; Matt Wilson, drums.