Escalator Over the Hill, by Carla Bley

At the tender age of nine Carla Bley started writing her first opera. Growing up in a musical house she remembers: “I began learning music before I was able to walk, and I was surrounded by music at home from as early as I can remember. As a very young child I assumed everyone was a musician.” She only had a couple of songs but she already knew how to call the opera – Over The Hill. The aspiring girl did not know it at the time, but 25 years later she would be working on an opera of a slightly bigger scope. Her collaborator was poet Paul Haines, who provided the libretto. The musical endeavors of his musical partner as a child unbeknownst to him, he named the opera Escalator Over The Hill. A serendipitous coincidence that ignited the creation of perhaps the most ambitious recorded experimental music project in history, the mammoth triple album Escalator Over The Hill. This is the story of that album, with a few short audio samples to give you a taste.

Escalator Over The Hill features 20 vocalists and over 50 musicians. The writing of the lyrics and music took three years and the recording sessions yielded 100 hours of material. As we said, ambitious. The album is unclassifiable, simply because nothing else sounds like it. If I had to describe it, it is modern jazz and avant-garde meet wild psychedelic rock, free-form electronic freakouts and beautiful melodic ballads, all topped with bizarre stream-of-consciousness poetry. What’s not to like?

The roots of the opera started in the mid-1960s at a jazz club where Charles Mingus was performing. Paul Bley was in the piano player seat and Carla Bley was in the audience. Also in attendance was one Paul Haines, a poet with no published work at the time who also wrote sleeve notes for jazz albums. Carla Bley remembers: “He was a writer of words, and I was a writer of notes. We thought, let’s do an opera. It really started without my knowledge or permission. I had a piece I was working on for myself, and I was sitting at the piano. I was stuck. He was living in Paris, and he sent me a poem. It fit exactly, syllable by syllable, into what I was writing. And his poem gave me the next phrase that I was missing.”

That first piece of music written for Escalator Over the Hill (let’s use the acronym ETOH for the rest of this article) was Detective Writer Daughter. The opening lyrics go like this:

Detective writer of English

She was once the Queen of Sweden

Her father’s horse was something like a house

Dad was a German where they lived

As you can guess from these lines, you need to approach this libretto with an open mind. Dubious substances may also help. But Carla Bley liked it and asked for more of these magical words: “I wrote right back, and said the opera is beginning. Meanwhile he was corresponding to me from India. It wasn’t very orderly, and it took a long time. He sent me more writings, and I didn’t leave out one word, not even an ‘and’ or ‘if’ of ‘but.’ I used every word he sent.”

Detective Writer Daughter

If you find the singer’s voice somewhat familiar you are indeed listening to a familiar voice, for the singer is none other than Jack Bruce. Carla Bley first saw Bruce in 1967 when Cream performed at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, along with The Electric Flag and Gary Burton: “When I heard his voice, it made me want to write music with words. I hadn’t done that yet.” A few years later when she started working on EOTH, her husband Mike Mantler who was director of their joint musical venture the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, suggested that she get in touch with Jack Bruce: “I agreed that he would be perfect and wrote him a letter. We had met a few times before, first at the Fillmore in San Francisco where I first heard him with Cream and then later in New York. As soon as Jack got the letter he called me from London and said yes!”

Carla Bley, Jack Bruce

Some rehearsal footage was filmed by Steve Gebhardt, who also worked with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on experimental films including ‘Fly,’ which consisted of a close-up of a fly circling a nude woman, and ‘Up Your Legs Forever,’ a collection of 367 pairs of human legs. As I said, experimental. Here is a clip with Jack Bruce working on the piece Rawalpindi Blues. We will hear more from this excellent track later.

Selecting Jack Bruce to participate on the album was a brilliant move, for his style of singing and bass playing are as unique as you will find. Although he was no stranger to jazz, having played acoustic bass in his early career, he has not yet been involved in a similar setting of experimental jazz. Still, he had no problem fitting in easily with very little rehearsal time. Bruce said this about his style: “I don’t really change my playing no matter what group I am with. I just play me, and the group around me changes. Even on the Escalator Over The Hill album with Carla Bley, the opera which has been voted the best jazz album in the MM, I didn’t consciously change my style of playing.”

Some of the musicians on the album were worlds apart from the music Bruce was making with Cream, but he appreciated the high level of musicianship they had to offer: “I was playing with Don Cherry, Paul Motian. What can you say? It was amazing to be around, and there’s some good stuff on there, lots of imagination.”

Jack Bruce, 1971

Speaking of Don Cherry, Carla Bley cloud not pick a better musician to bring in years of experience in experimental music in all its manifestations. His history with Ornette Coleman is well documented, and around the time of making EOTH he was involved in electronic music (Human Music with Jon Appleton), collaborations with Krzysztof Penderecki and most importantly, ethnic music. His involvement in Indian and Middle Eastern music was trailblazing at the time, long before other musicians started exploring ethnic music from these and other regions around the world.

Here is a section demonstrating his contribution to the album, taken from the end of the same tune, Rawalpindi Blues. Cherry vocalizes and plays trumpet in a mantra-like section of the track:

Rawalpindi Blues

Don Cherry is one of these rare musicians who can find something interesting to contribute in any musical setting he finds himself in. Carla Bley: “It was a miracle because he didn’t have any music. And even the words, when he says the syllables again and again and again, those were words from Escalator. Again it was one of the main songs, and he didn’t even know that. Everything was mystical like that with Don. He was from a different planet, definitely, god.”

Don Cherry, 1971

Carla Bley sings on a number of tracks on EOTH for a good reason. While she knew many excellent instrumentalists from the jazz and experimental music world and through her Jazz Composers Orchestra projects, finding singers proved much more difficult. She just wasn’t in the right musical circles. Not a natural singer, she was still able to sing many different roles on the album: Leader, Mutant, Voice and Desert Women (don’t ask, other roles in the opera include Parrot, Ancient Roomer and best of all a Yodelling Ventriloquist).

Jack Bruce commented: “I love Carla’s writing and her singing makes me laugh. It’s vast. There’s so much humor in it.” Here is a lovely example of the two of them singing on the track Little Pony Soldier. Fine contributions here by John McLaughlin on acoustic guitar, Dewey Redman on alto sax and Michael Mantler on trumpet.

Little Pony Soldier

Reading through the credits list for the album, you start to appreciate the magnitude and scope of the work Carla Bley put into this project. There are numerous participants, mostly from the jazz and experimental music scene of the time, plus many more that just happened to be available at the right time and place. As Carla Bley mentioned, “I said yes to everyone even if they couldn’t play or they couldn’t sing. If anyone wanted to be on the album, they could be on it. Everybody, anyone who walked in off the street. ‘Sure, you can be on ‘Escalator Over the Hill.’”

Even kids and baby sitters found themselves playing on the album. Carla Bley talked about Peggy Imig, a friend of hers who baby sat Karen, Bley’s four-year old daughter: “Peggy suggested that I consider using people I didn’t have to pay in the opera, like family and friends. ‘What do you play?’ I asked her. ‘Tenor saxophone,’ she said, ‘but it’s in Oregon. I haven’t touched it in nine years, and besides, I have a tin ear.’ ‘Send for it,’ I told her, and the original Amateur Hotel Lobby Band was born.” Some of the musicians in that amateur band were not amateurs at all, but were asked to play like amateurs to sound authentic. The more you listen to this album, the more layers you find. Oh, and the daughter is Karen Mantler, an excellent musician in her own right. At the tender age of four she got to utter the words “Riding uneasily” In the role of Ancient Roomer on the title track.

Bley acted not only as the artistic director, but due to scarce financial resources also the administrator who calls, schedules and books the recording times. This must have taken quite a large effort with this cast of thousand musicians. No wonder that the recording sessions for this album spanned several years.

Carla Bley, EOTH back cover

The odd one out in the impressive list of credits is Linda Ronstadt, not a name you would associate with this type of music. She portrays Ginger, of which Bley said: “The role of Ginger was most important. Ginger’s voice and appearance (an eventual film production was always on my mind) had to match Jack’s (portrayed by Jack Bruce).” It was drummer Paul Motian who suggested reaching out to the singer and “Luckily her manager at the time, John Boylan, knew about JCOA (Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association) and thought it would be a good thing for her to do.”

Ronstadt‘s sweet voice, known to millions of fans now throughout her rich career, works like a charm in the more conventional pieces on the album. Here is “Why”, also giving us a rare opportunity to hear Charlie Haden sings as ‘His Friends’:

Why

After the recording of the album, Linda Ronstadt said she had never been confronted with music so difficult. Although she got the ‘easy’ pieces, they are still worlds apart from ‘Different Drum’, ‘Blue Bayou’ and ‘You’re No Good’. Nothing wrong with them, all great popular songs.

Somehow Ronstadt’s name is linked to another musician from the less-commercial spectrum of music. Frank Zappa, whose music was rightfully compared to some of the tracks on EOTH, recalls an episode: “In 1967 we were living in New York and I got a request from an advertising agency…So, Linda Ronstadt happened to be managed by Herb Cohen, who was our manager at the time. Ian Underwood and I put together this track, and Linda did the vocal on top of it, and we made a demo. They paid a thousand dollars for the demo, and that was the last I ever heard from ’em. They didn’t like what I did.” Oh well.

And one last note about Linda Ronstadt. The only other recording I know of hers that crosses beyond her comfort zone of rock, pop, country, folk and jazz standards, is her participation in Philip Glass’ album Songs From Liquid Days in 1986. Highly recommended.

Linda Ronstadt, 1971

We mentioned Frank Zappa in passing but there is a tighter link to Zappa on this album. Don Preston, at the time with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, has singing parts in the roles of Doctor and Lion. Preston remembers: “I met Carla Bley in L.A. when she was married to Paul Bley, and the three of us used to jam together. I also played bass with Carla and Paul for a year or so. In the late sixties Carla married Michael Mantler. They asked me if I would perform on her first album, ‘Escalator Over The Hill’. They asked if I would be on it – just singing – which I found very strange. I said, ‘sure, I’ll do it, why not?’”

Here is the result, Preston as Doctor on Like Animals:

Like Animals

One more excellent vocalist making an appearance on the album is Jeanne Lee. Throughout the 1960s Lee sang with the best of free and experimental jazz artists, including Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, Gunther Hampel, Sunny Murray and others. Lee was no stranger to spoken word and poetry after her years of activity in the sound poetry field in California in the mid-1960s. On EOTH she had the role of Ginger II. Here is ‘End of Rawalpindi’, a duet with Jack Bruce who also plays bass, Carla Bley on organ, John McLaughlin on guitar and Paul Motian on drums. We are lucky again for the surviving footage of the rehearsals, this one featuring Lee’s vocals on the track:

The number of musicians playing on this album is way too large to list them all. Other notable musicians include Gato Barbieri on tenor saxophone, Karl Berger on vibraphone, Sheila Jordan – vocals, Jimmy Knepper on trombone, Jimmy Lyons on alto saxophone, Enrico Rava on trumpet, Roswell Rudd on trombone, and the list goes on and on. You would be hard-pressed to find a production in any style of music with such a vast and impressive cast of musicians gathered for a one-off project.

Significant credit must be given to Carla Bley’s partner at the time, Michael Mantler. Together with Carla Bley he founded the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association (JCOA) in 1965, an experimental jazz collective that was a fertile source for many of the musicians on the album. Mantler and Bley later established JCOA Records, the label on which the album was released. Naively they were hoping for a commercial label to pick up the album, but unsurprisingly none did and, “we were getting more and more fed up with the relationship between music and the music business.”

Mantler was extremely instrumental in enlisting many of the musicians on the album, raising funds to pay for the recording sessions and playing trumpet and other instruments. He gets the important credit of the album producer.

EOTH is a monumental achievement by any standard, and quite mind blowing when you realize this was Carla Bley’s debut album as a leader. It took an excruciatingly long time to complete from the first note written to the release of the album. Bley noted about her labored style of writing: “I write for jazz musicians but I’m really not one myself. When I have an idea, it’s very slow. One bar can take two or three weeks. As a jazz musician you must respond immediately, but I wonder and I ponder. That’s my process.”

Bley also took on herself a good amount of editing and mixing duties. When the triple album was released, the amount of music on it represented about 2% of the total recorded material.

Carla Bley

Carle Bley summarized the album best: “It takes a long time to listen to. It’s insane. Insane is good.”


Some of the quotes by Carla Bley are taken from a document she wrote after the completion of the album: Accomplishing Escalator over the Hill, published on Ethan Iverson’s highly recommended site DO THE M@TH.

I also recommend reading this Excellent interview with Carla Bley from 2019 by Dan Ouellette.


More about Carla Bley in this article:

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4 replies »

  1. Brilliant! Reading new facts about my favourite musicians and maybe one of the most influential albums ever is priceless! Thank you so much!!!

  2. Yes, thank you so very much. I have owned this album since around 1974, but this wonderful article has told me so much more about it.

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