Of Life (and Death?): new music from Carla Bley

The first time I saw the American composer and pianist Carla Bley perform live was back in June 1974, when she played keyboards for the Jack Bruce Band; a couple of years later; the first of her albums that I bought was ‘Dinner Music’, released a couple of years later. Thereafter, I not only made sure that my collection of her albums soon became and remained complete, but I made a point of seeing her play live, however large or small the band she was leading, whenever she performed in London. The last few times (except for the occasion when she led the Liberation Music Orchestra in their tribute to the late Charlie Haden), the gigs have featured her trio with bassist (and long-term partner) Steve Swallow and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard; and that’s the line-up I caught again last night in a wonderful concert at King’s Place.

The interplay between the three was everything one could hope for from musicians who have been performing together, on and off, for a quarter of a century; the two Americans, who’d already known each other for many years, recorded their first trio album with Sheppard – ‘Songs with Legs’ – in 1994, since when he’s been a frequent collaborator, most memorably perhaps on the recent trio albums ‘Trios’ (2013) and ‘Andando el Tiempo’ (2016). Perhaps because there has not been a Bley release since that last title, I quite expected to get much the same programme as the one I saw at Ronnie Scott’s in 2016, during a European tour to mark the leader’s 80th birthday year. That would have been perfectly acceptable and enjoyable, of course – Bley’s meticulously arranged and consistently inventive compositions are sufficiently rich to sustain repeat hearings, even without the improvisations by all three musicians – but what made the King’s Place gig especially rewarding was the inclusion of two new extended suites, in addition to the delightful ‘Copycat’, premiered in 2016 but still, sadly, yet to appear on disc.

The first of the new pieces was a four-parter with the titles ‘And Life Goes On’, ‘On’, ‘And On’, and ‘And Then One Day’. It was nowhere near as repetitive as the titles imply, though it did feel pleasingly like a life surveyed in its evocatively changing energies, gradually shifting away from a slightly off-kilter 12-bar blues format to something rather more unusual. It also provided opportunities a-plenty for the musicians to do what they do best, be it taking typically unflashy but imaginatively fertile solos or grooving along together in perfect unison (even when that required each of them to play in a different tempo). But for me, at least, it was the second new piece that really soared. 

Bley succinctly announced its title as ‘Beautiful Phones’, drily explaining, before she returned to the Steinway, that those were Trump’s first words upon entering the White House. Despite the laughter this provoked in the audience, the first part of the suite was immediately recognisable as a marcia funebre (or funeral march) for piano and bass guitar; the second movement also tended towards the dirge-like, with Sheppard sometimes phrasing his lamentation-like lines as if they were ululations. Then came a remarkable Bley piano solo which went way beyond her usual distinctive Monk-like angularity and eccentricity; it featured strange repetitions, stammerings, non-sequiturs, fragments of unrelated musical quotations, all strung together to give a vivid and utterly relevant impression of meandering incoherence, illogic and inconsequentiality. (Any resemblance to a Trump outpouring was, I imagine, entirely intentional.) Finally, the last movement took in some grandiose rhetorical flourishes, presented not only with musicianly expertise but with a darkly ironic wit. Though its satire was never hammered home – Bley’s compositional skills are far too subtle for that – the piece was as politically pointed as anything on her 2003 big band album ‘Looking For America’ or, indeed, on her 2005 collaboration with Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra, ‘Not In Our Name’. Politically pointed, but also, crucially, musically exhilarating.

The other numbers were familiar: besides the aforementioned ‘Copycat’, ‘Three Banana’ (from 2007’s ‘The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu’), Bley’s delicious trio arrangement of Monk’s ‘Misterioso’ (first heard on ‘Songs with Legs’) and, by way of an encore, ‘Lawns’, an example of Bley’s writing at its very simplest but still highly effective.  (A performance of this number, filmed last  year, can be found below). It was a lovely end to a great concert which once again demonstrated (if proof were still required, which it isn’t) what exceptional musicians Bley, Swallow and Sheppard are, and what a truly extraordinary composer Bley remains to this day. And now for the good news: according to Swallow’s opening announcement, a new album should be on the way, presumably to include ‘Beautiful Phones’, ‘And Life Goes On…’ and ‘Copycat.’ I for one can’t wait.

All the Carla Bley albums mentioned above are available on ECM. Charlie Haden’s ‘Not In Our Name’ was released by Verve. Photograph at top taken at King’s Place by the author.

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