Carla Bley

for The Gramophone, written March 1997

Carla Bley (for The Gramophone)

Whenever I am asked in the course of an interview who my "favourite composer" might be I usually reply "Carla Bley". Although I cannot admire any composer without some reservation, in her case my reservations barely exist. During the 1980's, while I was teaching at Leicester Polytechnic, Dave Smith and I ran a group, with a mixture of staff and students, called "The Leicester Bley Band" using original parts sent to us by Carla herself. In some cases Dave had to make arrangements from piano reductions using, for example, such albums as the long deleted Fictitious Sports (which Carla made with Nick Mason) as reference. Playing her music was a revelation and one of the most pleasurable experiences of my musical life. On one particularly memorable occasion we even played the first half of her own concert in the 1987 Camden Jazz Festival - at that time she had her recently-formed sextet - and like me she was staggered by the singing of a young dance student ("Pebs") who had never sung in public before encountering Carla's music. Some of the pieces which we played were in versions that she had never even recorded herself - the vocal version of The Lord is Listen' to Ya, Hallelujah! for example. Looking again recently at a video of a pre-Camden performance in Leicester I remain convinced of the power and originality of such pieces as Siam, I Try, Werving, I'm a Mineralist, Boo to You Too, The Internationale, and the sensational Hot River.  I would love to produce an album of these songs one day.

Carla Bley's recorded output really starts with the extraordinary "chronotransduction" Escalator over the Hill (1968-72) with its unique blend of performers from the worlds of jazz, rock and the fine art  performance underworld. It has since evolved in a mature and sophisticated fashion, thanks to the intelligent way in which she has developed her own record company, Watt, and to the fact that, in spite of the music not always being to Manfred Eicher's taste, the Watt albums are part of ECM's catalogue. Each album, of course, contains a diverse set of pieces but each album too contains at least one masterpiece, which is a quite phenomenal achievement. She also maintains a remarkable and commendable loyalty to her musicians, and several players have stayed with her band for many years. As with other jazz composers she writes for specific performers and uses the idiosyncrasies of their musical approaches to generate compositions that are inseparable from those players - just as Duke Ellington did with his various bands. He, for example, would never have expected Juan Tizol to play a Lawrence Brown trombone feature nor, I imagine, would Carla have given, say, a Carlos Ward solo to Steve Slagle. At the same time there is a consistency in her choice of musicians as when one highly individual and robust trombonist, Gary Valente, replaces another, Roswell Rudd.

Not surprisingly her work alters slightly as she changes the nature of her various bands, and these bands have gone through a number of instrumentations. The "classic" Bley line-up of the 1970's and early 1980's, for example, was the one we used at Leicester. This would have trumpet, 2 saxophonists playing a mixture of saxes, trombone, French horn (sometimes euphonium), tuba, piano and/or organ, bass and drums. The writing for this band has little relation to standard big-band writing (nor does it mimic the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool Band whose line-up it resembles) and the music written for it contains an, at times, startling blend of precision and looseness. As is demonstrated in the collaborations with Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra she is at ease with players who are gifted free improvisers. There are many pieces when the apparent sloppiness - in reality calculated chaos - is a direct consequence of her compositional wit and her acute observation of the possibilities for excess and parody. Having supremely flexible musicians who are not slavishly tied to notation makes such pieces possible. I am thinking particularly of pieces like Drinking Music (from the 1977 European Tour album) or her tour-de-force of musical deconstruction Musique Mécanique. This latter piece, in effect a suite of three, has at its centre (Musique Mécanique 2) the remarkable vocal number At Midnight, the first of a number of pieces where she persuades instrumental soloists in her band to deliver extraordinary vocal performances. Trombonist Roswell Rudd's At Midnight was eventually followed up with the album I Hate to Sing on which pianist Arturo O'Farrill sings the self-deprecating Very Very Simple, drummer D Sharpe sings the album's title song, and Carla herself speaks the mock-melodramatic monologue Murder. In fact this live album - now quite difficult to find - is undoubtedly the most consciously comic set of works that she has ever put together in a single collection. During this same period, on the other hand, she also wrote pieces with some of the most deliberately awkward themes imaginable (Walking Batteriewoman, Wrong Key Donkey) as well as the most tender (Ütviklingssang)

Many people were dismayed - and Manfred Eicher was one of them -  when this band evolved into the sextet (electric guitar, bass guitar, organ, piano, drums and percussion) via a couple of transitional albums: Heavy Heart 1983 and Night-glo of 1985, which had the magical yet prosaically-named track Rut. Ironically, some record stores, especially those with eccentric classification systems such as the FNAC chain in France, started to place her work at this time in the "fusion" section because of the music's mellifluous façade and its superficial resemblance to that genre. But this is a similar mistake to that which was made in the early 1960's when some writers almost dismissed the Bill Evans trio as "cocktail music". Beneath the deceptively smooth surface, in both cases, is a music of great toughness and rhythmic subtlety (even at very slow tempi).

The Sextet album (1987) also contains one of the most poetic of all Carla's pieces, a feature for pianist Larry Willis called Lawns which, like all her works for specific soloists, uses a meticulous orchestration to give the soloist the best possible environment within which to blossom. This is not unlike the way in which, in a very different musical world, Percy Grainger would invariably provide the perfect setting for some jewel of a folk song.

The way in which music for the sextet featured so strongly the bass guitarist Steve Swallow made the subsequent duet albums such a natural evolution, and happily allowed the strength and invention of her own piano playing to come much more to the fore. Within her bands up to this time she had generally played organ and had reserved her piano outings for albums such as Charlie Haden's Ballad of the Fallen (1982), for which she arranged and wrote most of the music and which contains the glorious duet track with Haden called Too Late. Ballad of the Fallen, and other recordings with The Liberation Music Orchestra, show her skill as composer and arranger when she is obliged to focus on material other than her own. This comes out too when she collaborated on that very interesting group of albums devoted to interpretations of the music of one composer by a family grouping of heterodox musicians, within which Carla was a key element. On the first of these she did a perfectly observed suite of music from Nino Rota's score for Fellini's .Carla has often spoken of her admiration and affection for Nino Rota's work and it is clear from many pieces other than this particular arrangement that they have a good deal in common. Others have noticed, too, her kinship with aspects of Kurt Weill's music. This made her presence on producer Hal Wilmer's Weill album Lost in the Stars entirely appropriate, where her contribution was a feature for Phil Woods, and also on the equivalent album for Thelonious Monk, where her version of Misterioso had Johny Griffin as the (perhaps) unlikely soloist.

Over the last few years she has also written music for a number of so-called classical musicians. On the first duet album (Duets 1988) she included Romantic Notions no.3, which she played herself but which was one of eight commissioned by and written for Ursula Oppens. On Big Band Theory (1993) she had violinist  Alexander Balanescu as guest performer with her big band. Indeed on her 1997 Arts Council Contemporary Music Network tour she includes a range of music written for others under the generic title Fancy Chamber Music.

As with any composer certain elements inevitably appear time and time throughout her career. These include her ability to observe acutely the essence of any form as material for affectionate parody or pastiche (Reactionary Tango, Copyright Royalties); a profound affection for the devices and elegant poise of church music (The Lord is Listenin' to Ya, Hallelujah!, Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, A New Hymn); a sublime and wickedly theatrical sense of comedy (The Piano Lesson, Murder, The Internationale). These are, however, always allied to a marvellous compositional craft and the ability to ensure that she surrounds herself with the best and, most importantly, the right performers for her music. Without doubt her strongest musical partnership over the last sixteen years or so has been with Steve Swallow in many different musical situations and, though it grates a little to say this, it has even caused me to admit one exception in my intense and almost pathological dislike of the bass guitar....

Recommended Recordings (ECM numbers in parentheses for WATT recordings)
Escalator over the Hill JCOA (839 310-2)
Musique Mécanique
WATT 9 (839 313-2)
Live!  WATT 11 (839 730-2)
Ballad of the Fallen (with Charlie Haden) ECM 811 546-2
Sextet WATT 17 (831 697-2)
Duets WATT 20 (837 345-2)
the Carla Bley Big Band goes to church WATT 27 (533 682-2)

Gavin Bryars
Billesdon March 1997