The girl who cried champagne
The photograph above, taken by Caterina di Perri, comes from the insert to Carla Bley’s new album, Trios, the latest instalment of her collaboration with the bass guitarist Steve Swallow and the saxophonist Andy Sheppard. It’s the pianist/composer’s first album for ECM — and, she says, the first in which she has submitted herself to the demands of a producer (Manfred Eicher, the label’s founder) other than herself.
I’d started listening to the album when, while doing a bit of research into another subject entirely, I found an early mention of her in an issue of Down Beat dated September 5, 1965, from a review of a concert in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art by the Jazz Composers Orchestra and the New York Art Quartet. The magazine’s reviewer was evidently having trouble with what was then known as “the new thing”, with only Ms Bley’s appearance to give him relief from what he clearly found to be an ordeal. Here’s what he wrote:
The evening did have three points of interest, all visual. The first was scored before a note was blown, when (John) Tchicai appeared, conventionally garbed, but with his face decorated with warpaint and what looked like chickenbones stuck into his cheeks. The second was (Milford) Graves, continually assaulting his drums and kicking at his cymbals in a manner that had, so far as I could tell, nothing to do with anything else that was going on. The third, and greatest, was Mrs Bley at the piano in the second half, one of the most authentically ravishing women you ever clapped eyes on, with nothing lacking of slim grace and brooding intensity to complete the picture of musical genius as only a Hollywood director would have the nerve to present it — a vision that, while it lasted, almost compensated for the regrettable noises that went with it.
I’m not going to name the critic in question. History has a way of making fools of all of us from time to time.
Anyway, Trios is an exceptional recording, in which she and her collaborators revisit some familiar themes — including the ever-entrancing “Vashkar”, first recorded in a standard piano trio format by her then-husband, Paul Bley, for the Savoy label 50 years ago this month. “Les Trois Lagons (d’apres Henri Matisse)”, “Wildlife” and “The Girl Who Cried Champagne” will all be familiar to her fans in various other versions; the opener, “Utviklingssang”, has previously been recorded by a nonet, a duo (Ms Bley and Swallow) and an octet, but I’d be surprised if this is not the definitive treatment of a gorgeous hymn-like tune.
For me, the surprise of the album was the way it converted my hitherto rather guarded admiration for Sheppard’s playing to a much warmer response, and made me drop my normal resistance to Swallow’s work on bass guitar. I’m afraid I could never understand why the man who was so articulate on the double bass on those classic George Russell Sextet albums from the early ’60s (and on the Paul Bley session that produced the original “Vashkar”) would want to devote himself full-time to an instrument far less appropriate to jazz. In this exposed setting, however, he plays with a guitar-like fluency and lyricism, the lack of the acoustic instrument’s tonal flexibility never hampering his contribution in the way it has — possibly to my ears alone — in the past.
And “The Girl Who Cried Champagne”? That’s a private joke between Bley and Swallow, who are long-time partners. It’s her.