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There’s a deceptively casual musical intimacy afoot in Life Goes On that belies the deep jazz currents navigated by pianist Carla Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bass guitarist Steve Swallow, whose first release as a trio was 1994’s Songs With Legs. The new album, recorded last May in Italy, is built on three suites, first heard during the group’s performances at concerts around the United States and Europe. This is engaging chamber jazz, with surprising melodies, unexpected chord changes, inventive arrangements and engaging improvisations delivered in a warm, uncluttered fashion and recorded pristinely; it all feels like being in a cozy listening room as these elegant compositions unfold in real time.
Bley’s music again is streaked with quirky humor, most pointedly on “Beautiful Telephones,” the suite’s title inspired by a left-field Trump remark. The cycle’s first part, a minor-toned ballad, has the pianist’s slowly circling figure matched by the counterpoint lines of Swallow’s five-string bass guitar, plucked with his plectrum in a remarkably clean and clear manner; he later offers a twisting, rangy slow-burn solo. Part three, with Sheppard on tenor, is an off-kilter jaunt that occasionally stops to throw in bits of patriotic American songs, including “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Hail to the Chief,” and a momentary “My Way.”
The four-part title suite opens with a laid-back blues, the bass line played on piano and the melody volleyed between bass and tenor. It continues with the somber “On,” the quick-shifting “And On” and the tango-tinged “And Then One Day.” The “Copycat” song cycle opens in more atmospheric terrain, with Sheppard’s long tenor tones unfurling atop his trio mates’ gently ebbing rhythms on “After You.” And the group, with the saxophonist on soprano, engages in playful call and response on “Follow the Leader” and “Copycat”; at one point, on the latter, Bley drops out to allow for an extended, dazzling tête-à-tête between Sheppard and Swallow, providing yet another example of the profound connection among these longtime comrades.— Philip Booth
Featured photo by Caterina di Perri.