In the mid 1950s, while still in her teens, Carla Bley hitchhiked from Oakland, California to New York. After listening to west coast cool jazz musicians like Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, she caught the jazz bug and was heading to the Mecca of jazz music. She got to the Cafe Bohemia jazz club and watched Miles Davis with Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland: “I got a job at Birdland as a cigarette girl and that’s how I got my education. I sold cigarettes, stuffed animals, I was the one who took a picture of you and your girl friend at the table to commemorate your being there with someone who wasn’t your wife usually. I hardly sold anything because I was listening to the music. If someone asked to buy a pack of Luckies I said ‘wait till the solo is over’.” Thus started an amazing career of a jazz composer and performer as unique as they come in any style of music. In particular, between 1976 and 1984 Carla Bley released a number of albums with her band that are some of my favorite jazz ensemble recordings.
In 1976 Bley started a run of records that showcased how great a marriage between a composer and a dedicated group of musicians can be. In that period Bley worked with a consistent makeup of instrumentation, usually ten instruments consisting of brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, french horn), reeds (alto and tenor saxophones), a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) and herself doubling on piano and organ. Musicians changed between these records, but the core group of Carla Bley, Steve Swallow (bass) and Michael Mantler (trumpet) and the high skill level of all musicians involved gave the band a uniform sound and feel. Bley’s achievements as a composer and band leader have been documented well, and I recommend Amy Beal’s book Carla Bley.
The late 60s and early 70s saw a number of great band leaders taking jazz into a new direction for a large band, somewhat scaling down the format to 10-15 musicians and more importantly adding components of classical, avant-garde, theater and other styles, blending them into interesting and complex compositions. Don Ellis and Michael Gibbs come to mind, both influenced by the third stream sensibilities pioneered by Gunther Schuller in the late 50s. Carla Bley’s composition style definitely has aspects of that, but she comes from a different, less schooled background and there is something more personal and intuitive in the music she writes. And more than anybody else, there is a whimsical and self-deprecating thread going through most of her music.
The quirky side of her personality found its way into many compositions Bley wrote over her long and productive career. Gary Burton, who in 1967 was one of the first to dedicate an album to her music with A Genuine Tong Funeral, said of Bley: “I loved the compositional strength of her writing and found her to be fascinatingly eccentric.” Burton also commented on her activities as an entrepreneur of music business who founded the New Music Distribution Service, an important outlet for many contemporary artists at the early stage of their careers such as Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Sonic Youth to publish their music: “I have always considered Carla a great example of how to market music. Her work is not so directly in the mainstream, so it took ingenuity and original thinking to find ways to get her music in front of people. She has definitely succeeded as an organizer and businesswoman, bringing her music to a much wider audience than would have happened if she had just waited for the audience to find her work.” Steve Swallow, who probably knows her music more intimately than any other artist, summed it up well: “Aside from brief composition theory at Yale learning the Monk theory, knowing Carla Bley was the only meaningful training in composition I ever had.”
The quirkiness is also evident in the names Bley gave to the organizations she founded. Alrac, her publishing company is Carla spelled backwards. WATT Records, the label she founded with Michael Mantler to release their albums, means three different things according to her: The Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Samuel Beckett‘s novel WATT, and “Watt the hell was that?” The label released close to 50 records since its inception in 1974.
Humor is evident in the first record that introduced me to Carla Bley, 1977’s Dinner Music. Song Sung Long, with the constant quarter notes on tuba and organ(?), and Sing Me Softly Of The Blues with the background dinner sounds, first performed by the Art Farmer Quartet in 1965 with Steve Swallow, are good examples of that dry sense of humor.
Sing Me Softly Of The Blues
The musicians on Dinner Music consist partly on Carla Bley’s regular band at the time and a rhythm section courtesy of the legendary Stuff band with Steve Gadd on drums, Richard Tee on keyboards and Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale on guitar. Members of Stuff played with everyone and everybody on the music scene in the late 70s, famously with Paul Simon and Joe Cocker. Following Dinner Music, Bley was able to establish a full band of her own for the next albums reviewed here. The album also includes one of her most covered compositions, Ida Lupino, written in 1964 and dedicated to the actress, who was the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-hiker from 1953) in the male dominated 1950’s Hollywood studio system.
The following album, European Tour from 1977, features Drinking Music which first appeared on Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra in 1970. The song demonstrates Bley’s interest in theatrical music and it sounds as if it came straight out of a Kurt Weill musical. This was one of the most interesting incarnations of her band. It featured two Soft Machine alumni, Elton Dean on alto sax and Hugh Hopper on bass plus Gary Windo who played with Keith Tippett’s Centipede on tenor sax. There is definitely a Canterbury thread on this album. Making the recording even more eclectic, it also features Terry Adams of NRBQ on piano and avant-garde drummer Andrew Cyrille.
Musique Mecanique, released in 1978, is considered one of Bley’s greatest achievements. Drummer D Sharpe, who played in the early incarnation of the Modern Lovers, joined the band and will remain for the next few albums. Highlights on the album include 440, named after the frequency orchestras use to tune up before a concert begins, and Jesus Maria and Other Spanish Strains, with guest Charlie Haden on acoustic bass. The tune could fit nicely into the Liberation Music Orchestra repertoire with its Spanish themes.
Musique Mecanique was the last record to feature trombonist Roswell Rudd, a long term associate of Carla Bley starting with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra in the 60s. Rudd also gets a vocal feature in the dreamy and creepy Musique Mecanique II (At Midnight). Like all members of her groups, Rudd had the utmost respect for Bley and her ability to tailor the music around the unique skills of each musician in the band: “I always felt she was writing a part for me. She had me in mind when she was writing the part. It was a good feeling. I was able to flow in Carla’s music. I think she was on the crest as an orchestrator. In other words, she was getting to that Duke Ellington stage where she had the soloist in mind when she was writing stuff, so your part was kind of personalized. Right from the beginning, the first times I was looking at her charts, I was feeling that. She was right up there with Mingus, and Ellington, and anyone who was orchestrating a soloist. The writing was kind of secondary to what they heard the soloist doing in the orchestral space. The acoustical reality of the performer came first.”
The next album is one of my favorite in Bley’s catalog – Social Studies, recorded in 1980 and released in 1981. It contains two of her compositions that I like the most. The first is Reactionary Tango (In Three Parts), written by her and Steve Swallow. A great footage of the band performing the full suite in Poland in 1981 gives us a glimpse into how the band looked and sounded live at that stage. Composer Gavin Bryars said of Carla Bley in 1997: “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, as in Reactionary Tango.” I was lucky to see the Carla Bley Trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard perform the piece in Montreal in 1997. Another great interpretation of the song was recorded around the same time as Social Studies on a different ECM release by Gary Burton, Easy As Pie. Alto sax player Jim Odgren shines on this one.
My favorite composition on Social Studies is Útviklingssang (development song in Norwegian), one of Bley’s most melancholic and moving melodies. It got its name after Bley witnessed an Oslo protest march against the building of dams to generate more energy for Southern Norway which would adversely affect wildlife in Lapland. Bley knows how to express deep feelings with very few notes. In 2016 she recalled a memory from her early life: “My father showed me a piece of music. I had asked him ‘where does this music come from? Who wrote this down?’ And he said ‘Well there are composers who write this stuff and this is the paper they use to write it and here is the pencil, and they just put a lot of dots on the page and you play whatever the dots say you should play.’ So I took the paper and pencil back to my room and came back the next day with the paper filled with black dots. His advice and only advice was: ‘Less dots. Get rid of most of these dots.’ That was my first composing lesson.”
Social Studies also saw the addition of a new member in the band, one who would take the live performance intensity up a notch, Trombonist extraordinaire Gary Valente.
The next album, Live, was recorded during a few dates in San Francisco in 1981. Steve Slagle, who I came to know through his playing with Steve Kuhn at the end of the 1970s, joins the band on alto sax and has a great feature on the melodic Time And Us. Carla Bley’s music is fortunately played quite a bit by many excellent musicians, giving us great interpretations while generating important royalty revenue for her. The complex Real Life Hits on the Live album was covered by Gary Burton on an album of the same name, and gets a great performance by Bley’s band on a 1982 French TV date.
The standout track on Live features the unparalleled Gary Valente playing a great memorable solo on The Lord Is Listenin’ to Ya, Hallelujah!, one of Bley’s best church-influenced pieces. Bley has the highest regard to Valente: “I had a trombone player, Gary Valente, and for many years, he would play one note during his whole solo. I would say, ‘OK but when he gets to that thirteenth bar, he’s going to have to change from a C# to a C! It’s not in the chord!’ And he wouldn’t do it! He would keep on that C# and it made me so happy!”
Bley also plays a solo midway into the song, as usually with carefully chosen notes. She was always very modest about her ability as a player. In 1984 she told Downbeat magazine: “You should have a band and see what’s it like. If you’re not an extrovert, its really hard, particularly if you are not a virtuoso musician. If I could take one brilliant solo or something, and the audience would scream in delight, my presence on stage would mean something. I wrote the music, but why am I even there? I do a couple of hand waving things which I don’t do very well, and play an organ solo that has maybe two or three notes over a period of five minutes. I feel like I should be in a cage with a sign on me that says ‘She wrote the music’.”
1984’s I Hate To Sing, mostly recorded in the same 1981 sessions that yielded Live, includes many comic moments. The album gives several of the ensemble members an opportunity to sing, for example keyboard player Arturo O’Farrill, Carla Bley and the whole band on Very Very Simple. Another highlight is the Kurt Weill inspired title track I Hate To Sing, featuring drummer D Sharpe as lead singer. Sadly D Sharpe passed away at the young age of 39 in 1987. More than any of her other albums, I Hate To Sing is a showcase of Carla Bley’s ability to not only write witty music, but come up with amusing lyrics as well.
The last album I will cover in this post, Heavy Heart, was released in 1984 and features a few musicians who sadly passed away since then. Hiram Bullock, who played on a few milestone 1980s pop and rock records such as Steely Dan’ Gaucho and Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun (he plays the solo on the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing), has a nice feature on Talking Hearts.
The great Kenny Kirkland, who also played with Sting on his career-defining Dream Of The Blue Turtles, shines with a fabulous solo on Starting Again.
It is impossible to box the albums mentioned in this post in a single musical style. You find so many styles in them, from classical, jazz, theatrical, to pop, rock, gospel and everything in between. Her music used to be filed under jazz in record stores (remember those?), although this is likely because of her choice of using jazz musicians in her ensembles: “I’m just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they are better. They play better, they are smarter and they can save your ass in a bad situation. If their music falls off the stands, they can make it up. A classical musician, a folk musician, or a rock & roll musician is pretty limited in what they can do to help out the leader. I need all the help I can get.” Indeed she got that help, leveraging the talents of some of the best musicians of that period. In a 2016 interview with Amy Beal Bley said: “I’ve turned out to be a person who does not qualify for anything but either people finding me interesting or shocking or different or . . . I don’t care that I can’t do it like other people. I’m glad I can’t.” Amen to that.
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