Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Carla Bley’

Liberation Music Orchestra

liberation-music-orchEight years ago I was fortunate enough to be at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village to hear Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on the night of the US presidential election, and then again the following night after it had been confirmed that Barack Obama would be serving as America’s first black president. The anxious optimism of the first night and the joy and relief of the second could hardly have formed a greater contrast with the current mood of the world, in which the orchestra — minus Charlie, who died two years ago, and now directed by his long-time collaborator Carla Bley — arrived in London to play at Cadogan Hall as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

I don’t think I was the only one to find their music even more emotionally charged than usual, which is saying something for a band that began life in 1969 delivering an uncompromising musical protest against the evils of the age, with a line-up including Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Roswell Rudd. Tonight’s 90-minute set maintained the tradition by concentrating on the concerns of the hour and consisted of material from their last two studio recordings: Not in My Name (2004) and the new Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings), the environmental album on which they were working before Haden’s death, and which was completed under Bley’s supervision. All of it resonated powerfully.

The new pieces included Bley’s beautifully plain arrangement of “Blue in Green”, her own “Silent Spring” and Haden’s “Song for the Whales”, which featured a lovely passage for Seneca Black’s trumpet, Tony Malaby’s tenor saxophone, Darak Oles’s double bass and Matt Wilson’s drums. Bill Frisell’s gorgeous, slow-burning “Throughout” made a lovely encore. The evening was sprinkled with fine solos from Malaby and his fellow tenorist Chris Cheek, Loren Stillman on alto, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Marshall Gilkes on trombone, Vincent Chauncey on French horn, Earl McIntyre on tuba and Steve Cardenas on guitar. Oles, who perhaps had the hardest gig of the night, did the right thing by playing Haden’s parts and evoking his spirit without trying to be him.

But the heart of the concert came in the long, carefully wrought medley of “America the Beautiful”, “Lift Every Heart and Sing” and Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America”, and particularly in the arrangement of “Amazing Grace” to which Bley brings every bit of her great and precious expertise at making highly schooled musicians sound like the world’s greatest town brass band. As they played it, investing every note with humanity, I couldn’t help thinking of Obama’s sudden decision, during his address to the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a US senator, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June last year, to sing the song as part of his eulogy to the priest and the eight other victims murdered by a white supremacist during a Bible study class. It’s a different world now.

* Time/Life is out now on the Impulse label.

Remembering Nino Rota

Amarcord Nino RotaWhen it appeared in 1981, Hal Willner’s Amacord Nino Rota kick-started the phenomenon of tribute albums. The New York producer gathered a bunch of musicians — among them Carla Bley, Jaki Byard, Bill Frisell, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, Steve Lacy, and the then-unknown Wynton Marsalis — to take a variety of approaches, in various combinations, to Rota’s music for the films of Federico Fellini.

Last night, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, Willner presented a greatly expanded version of the project, featuring only two of the original participants — Bley and her partner, the bass guitarist Steve Swallow — but adding a bunch of new pieces arranged by and featuring the likes of Mike Gibbs, John Etheridge, Kate St John, Steve Beresford, Rita Marcotulli, Nitin Sawhney, Giancarlo Vulcano, Karen Mantler and Steven Bernstein. Now opened up to include Rota’s music from non-Fellini films, the evening contained almost too many wonderful moments to remember.

Those I carried away with me included Beresford’s use of B.J. Cole’s outrageously eloquent steel guitar on music from Il Bidone; the expansion of Bley’s brilliant arrangement of themes from 8 1/2; Mantler’s deployment of her own chromatic harmonica during her marvellous settings of the various themes from The Godfather; the emotions that surged to the surface during Gibbs’s arrangement of music from The Glass Mountain (a 1949 film directed by Henry Cass and Edoardo Anton, and starring Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray); and the very moving conclusion, which found Sawhney at the piano, meditating on melodies from La Strada, accompanied by string quartet and bass flute.

I felt a little less warm towards the brief appearances of Marc Almond and Richard Strange, delivering songs from Fellini’s Casanova films. But the arrangers were fortunate to be able to call on the services of a terrific orchestra, whose soloists included the wonderful brazen trombonist Barnaby Dickinson, the feather-tongued tenor saxophonist Julian Siegel, the deft guitarist John Etheridge, Bernstein on slide trumpet (surely the most Felliniesque of instruments), and Marcotulli, who contributed a fine piano improvisation to The Glass Mountain. Topped and tailed — with typically Willnerian hipster ingenuity — by recordings of Ken Nordine reading Shel Silverstein’s poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, the result was a two-and-a-half-hour triumph.

The girl who cried champagne

Carla BleyThe 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.