Carla Bley, With the Passing of Time

On May 6, Carla Bley celebrated her 80th birthday. Five days later, on May 11, her latest album Andando el Tiempo was released on ECM Records. Produced by Manfred Eicher, the album sees her playing with her trio of over 20 years, composed of Andy Sheppard on saxophone and Steve Swallow, her longtime musical and romantic partner, on bass. Over the years, this has become Bley’s main outfit as both a composer and a producer. Since making their debut on the live album Songs with Legs (1994) and being joined by drummer Billy Drummond and trumpeter Paolo Fresu on a number of subsequent recordings, the three returned with some of the most introspective music they ever recorded in 2013 on their aptly titled Trios.


Trios was an album of firsts for Bley. It marked her debut for the ECM label, somewhat surprising given her longstanding affiliation with Watt, the independent label she founded with her second husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler, in the ‘70s, through which all her previous recordings had been distributed. It was also the first Bley album not to feature any new material. Its track list, in fact, comprised a number of her earlier compositions, arranged for a smaller band. While Trios and Andando el Tiempo are both characterized by the private nature of their music, and both were recorded at RSI Studios in Lugano, Italy, the latest album in entirely composed of new material. Andando el Tiempo shows that Bley has not lost her ability to write great music and showcases her skills as a pianist. As a musician, she has never been praised for technical prowess or virtuosity but rather for expressing her instrumental excellence through attentiveness, intuition and praiseworthy improvisational creativity.


It is quite impressive to consider just how much Bley has accomplished, particularly when considering that she received minimal formal musical education. Rather than seeing this defect as a drawback, however, she has referred to it as a key element that led her on a unique path to self-discovery as an artist. Speaking of her formative years, she once proudly remarked, “I had managed to retain my ignorance, something you can never get back once you lose it.”


Lovella May Borg, later Carla Bley, was born in Oakland, California, the daughter of Christian fundamentalist parents with Swedish ancestry. In her childhood, she was exposed to classical music and religious hymns. Her father, Emil Borg, was a church organist and a piano teacher. He attempted to teach his daughter how to play but eventually gave up due to exasperation with her lack of discipline. He was still able to teach her to write music and to this day she writes the vast majority of her works on pencil, at an upright piano in her home office. Later, while living in New York City in the late ‘50s, she would apply for a scholarship at the Lenox School of Jazz where pianist George Russell, one of the earliest established musicians to record Bley’s compositions, used to teach. The application was rejected and the school closed down entirely in 1960.


As an autodidact, she relied on influences from other artists she admired and from her own personal experiences to shape her craft as a composer, arranger and musician, sometimes willfully and other times accidentally. Celebrated as one of the most original jazz figures of the post-bop era, she has collaborated with countless musicians, written for anything from duets to big band ensembles and won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 and an NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2015. She spent the vast majority of her formative years in New York City during the ‘1950s and early ’60s. This was a time in which the city’s burgeoning art scene was characterized by cross fertilization among all of the arts, which led to the formation of many revolutionary movements and waves, from beat writing to abstract expressionism to method acting. The soundtrack to this eclectic artistic evolution was undoubtedly jazz, which itself underwent constant changes during these times.


In many ways, Bley’s process of self-teaching encapsulates the essence of these vibrant creative times. Her openness to a large variety of influences to shape her style is reflected in her magnum opus Escalator Over the Hill (1972), widely considered as the work that established her reputation. Upon its release, she referenced Kurt Weill, Erik Satie and The Beatles as her primary influences for the album. All three provide a loose overview on the origin of some of her most reoccurring characteristic traits: Weill through his own theatricality and informed sense of humour; Erik Satie with his modernism, unorthodox rhythmic structures and sophisticated melodies; The Beatles for being experimental while, at the same time, fundamentally accessible. (Escalator Over the Hill is often considered to be the jazz-opera equivalent of Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.)


Escalator Over the Hill was also inspired by poet Paul Haines, who wrote its libretto and would later write the one for its follow-up Tropic Appetites (1974). “Peking Window,” one of his poems, inspired “Naked Bridges/Diving Brides” from Andando el Tiempo. The line which specifically inspired it reads: “From naked bridges / Diving brides relax / In freefall fistfuls / of sparkling albumen.” The track was commissioned for last year’s London Jazz Festival and it was also Bley’s wedding present to Andy Sheppard. Its middle section quotes a piece from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” Bley’s admiration for Mendelssohn’s work led her to titling her 1976 self-published collection of compositions from 1961 to 1975 Songs Without Words, in reference to Mendelssohn’s series of the same name that comprises short lyrical piano pieces he wrote between 1829 and 1845.


Bley has often quoted works of other artists in previous tracks for different purposes. “Greasy Gravy/Awful Coffee” from Appearing Nightly (2008) quotes briefly and liberally from other songs about food and drink, such as “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” “Salt Peanuts” and “Watermelon Man.” The move alludes to remembrances of her first musical engagements as a pianist back in the ‘50s by evoking a mixture of nostalgia and humor. Similarly, on “National Anthem” from Looking for America (2003), she includes pieces from anything from Dixieland classics to military marches. Here, the intention is to highlight the theme of opposing the surge of patriotism that had taken over America at the time through satire and more than a hint of irreverence.


Bley’s underexposure to formal musical education allowed her to be less caught up in technique and theory. She learned to rely on her instincts and intuition whenever faced with an obstacle. She also learned to integrate mistakes in her craft. For instance, when she was 17, she landed a job at a Monterey club called The Black Orchid, where she played a repertoire of Tin Pan Alley tunes and would sometime resort to improvisation to cover up her mistakes. Improvisation was something that, as a player, she was unfamiliar with up to this point. In 1970, she told DownBeat magazine, “I like to make mistakes. It makes me think of ways to correct them.” Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, one of the main exponents of the free jazz movement, shared a similar viewpoint. He once said, “From realizing that I can make mistakes, I have come to realize that there is an order in what I do.”


Mistakes have been constructive reoccurrences in her entire life, musically or otherwise. She officially changed her first name to Carla from Lovella May in the summer of 1957. The note providing the explanation for the change on the correctional affidavit read “incorrect name was added to the birth certificate at the time of registration.” At some point, during the late ‘50s, perhaps fearing a mistaken career choice, she went to a psychiatrist who told her to stop thinking that she was a composer and strongly encouraged her to consider a career as a seamstress. She never followed that advice. When bassist Charlie Haden died last year, Bley sat down at the piano and started writing a piece in honor of her great friend and long-time collaborator. “Time Life” will be included in the upcoming Liberation Music Orchestra album, due out this summer on Impulse Records. Speaking to Nate Chinen of The New York Times, she said, “In the piece I wrote for Charlie there’s a note that’s really wrong. That’s the wrongest note that I ever played. And I made it right.”

Photo: Heinrich Klaffs

Author Amy C. Beal, who wrote a book on the music and influence of Carla Bley (Carla Bley, 2011) stated that “Donkey” can be credited as being Bley’s earliest mature work. She wrote it in 1958, and it was recorded in 1960 by musician Don Ellis for Essence, the title of which comes from another Bley composition. “Donkey” is based on a standard 12-bar blues structure and the publication of the song in a collection of piano music from 1981 instructs the player to improvise “in the traditional manner.” This would suggest that bebop and blues form the foundations of Bley’s mature compositional work. However, Beal also says that Bley has claimed in the past to have been introduced to jazz as an adolescent. Considering that she started playing piano at the age of 3, this would be quite late on her formative timeline. In fact, Beal’s book also informs that Bley considers to have written her very first composition as a child and that it was a set of variations on the traditional church hymn “Onwards Christian Soldiers.” The impact of religious music on Bley also draws an interesting parallel with two names that often come up in critical writings on her music: Charles Ives and Duke Ellington. The modernist composer Charles Ives, who was among the first composers to engage in a systematic program of experimental music, shared many of the formative elements of Bley’s upbringing, such as church-music traditions of his youth and an early exposure to European art music. Duke Ellington created three Christian jazz concerts in the last decade of his life, between 1965 and 1973, and called them “the most important thing I have ever done.”


Despite being born in a family of Christian fundamentalists, Bley herself claims to have become an atheist at the age of 12. This has not distanced her in any way from church music. Time and time again, she has embraced its influence on her works by including hymns in her songs and by writing for church choirs. The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church (1996) was entirely recorded in a Church in Perugia, Italy, performed during the Umbria Jazz Festival. She even released a critically acclaimed album of Christmas songs, Carla’s Christmas Carols (2009), although its track list included an original composition titled “Hell’s Bells,” which she described to an NPR interviewer as a carol for people who don’t go to heaven. “Everything’s going wrong in that piece. It’s sort of like hell — what hell must be, I thought. I have these little scenarios that amuse me as I’m writing.”


The imaginative narrative quality in some of Bley’s works is often a concrete source of inspiration for Bley’s music in its own right. The stories she tells through her compositions and arrangements range from abstract and bizarre to human and personal. Escalator Over the Hill revolves around strange happenings in a hotel populated by even stranger individuals. Each one of the instrumentalists in the ensemble, credited as the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, plays an active role in its storyline. A polar opposite is represented by “Saints Alive!” from Andando el Tiempo, a subtle waltz inspired by the scenario of a group of old ladies sitting on a porch on a cool evening, gossiping. On this track, Bley, Swallow and Sheppard are the three old ladies and the imagined set-up provides a narrative structure to their musical interplay that feels like a colloquial ladies’ chit-chat.


Theatricality is an equally important element in Bley’s role as a performer, beginning with Bley’s own characteristic outlook, with her straight blonde hair and her matchstick thin figure. A 1979 issue of the Montreal Gazette featured a report from a Carla Bley concert and stated, “Bley, looking like an underweight rag doll in her loose-fitting pink dress, runs between her piano or organ and center stage, her hands flexed into claws, conducting, it seems, by impetuosity.” The same report also commented on the comedic behaviors of the band as a whole, stating that they “sucked on beer bottles, they played with puppets, they kidded each other over supposed mistakes and they provided a sometimes breathtaking, sometimes hypnotic display of intricate arrangements.”


Bley’s career as a composer really took off in 1955, when she decided to move to New York City on a whim, apparently inspired to attend a Miles Davis concert at Café Bohemia. Soon after that, she started working as a cigarette girl at the notorious New York City night club Birdland. Founded in 1949, Birdland became an epicenter of American music in the ‘50s. During its golden age, many jazz greats performed there regularly, including Count Basie, Anita O’Day, Bud Powell, Stan Getz, Lester Young and many more. By working there, she had the opportunity to learn directly from these artists every night and would listen to them attentively. Bley has credited her time at the Birdland as constituting her formal education. It may not have been formal by any conventional means but it was, perhaps, the best.


Birdland was where she met pianist Paul Bley. The two became a couple shortly after their meeting. At the time, he was looking for less traditionally rooted material to play with his band and encouraged her to write for him. He was also responsible for introducing her to the second stage of her personalized educative process, when she followed him to Los Angeles where his band had landed a long-term engagement at The Hillcrest Club. The Paul Bley Quintet included drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Carla Bley’s exposure to free playing on a nightly basis would go on to influence her writing for many years.


Shortly after returning to New York City, her reputation started to grow among the exponents of the New York jazz scene. Many artists, including Jimmy Giuffrè and George Russell, recorded her compositions. Around this time, she also met Steve Swallow, who would play a vital part in her growth as an instrumentalist. They had been collaborating for over 20 years before the release of their album Duets (1988). Around this time, Bley seemed determined to put her own piano playing at the forefront. The warm atmosphere and relaxing vibes of the album provided her with enough security to expose herself and evolve as an instrumentalist. Not to mention that the chemistry she shares with Swallow is remarkable. Just by listening and without glancing at the cover artwork, it’s obvious that the two were sharing something special.


Her playing on Andando el Tiempo is, arguably, better than ever. Her typical quirk is slightly subsided for something much deeper and more intimate. The songs set up great interactions between the three musicians, with strong statements by Swallow and Sheppard. Instead of one upstaging the other, all three function like a tight unit, a three-headed monster, a well-oiled machine. Their remarkable mutual understanding and familiarity with one another allows them to delve upon delicate themes in a heartfelt, painful and emotional way.


The album’s opening title track, a three-part suite inspired by the trials and tribulations of addiction, is particularly powerful. The first part of the song, aptly titled “Sin Fin,” (“Endless” in English) is defined by a sad tango-like rhythm and a seven-bar harmonic sequence that seems capable of spiraling onward endlessly. In the liner notes, Bley writes “’Sin Fin’ is the realization that the endless cycle of medication to stay free from anxiety and pain is becoming insufferable.” The second part, titled “Potacion de Guaya,” is also founded on a soft tango rhythm, but comes across as even more somber and sad. She describes it as a representation of “the ongoing sorrow felt by everyone affected.” The third and final section, “Camino al Volver,” ends the track in uplifting hopefulness. This is evoked by its freer structure. While the track is still based on a Latin American rhythm, it leaves plenty of room for each of the members of the trio to play both in unison and as individuals, only occasionally playing one or two carefully placed reoccurring notes to prevent it from getting out of hand. It’s a type of controlled chaos. As mathematically precise as it sounds, it is ultimately just as vulnerable.


Over the years, Bley has kept a healthy habit of staying busy and working on a variety of different projects at the same time. At 80, nothing seems to have changed in these regards. Rather than resting on her laurels, she is as active now as she has ever been. The release of Andando el Tiempo on ECM and upcoming tour dates with the trio is only part of what will keep her busy for the next number of months. She has a forthcoming album with the Liberation Music Orchestra, which will be out on Impulse on June 14. It will be titled Time Life and include two of the last performances by Charlie Haden. In addition, she is currently working on “La Leçon Française” (“The French Lesson”), an oratorio for big band and boys’ choir, which she has called her biggest work to date and is expected to be released on ECM next year.

Words by: Matt Micucci


Featured photo by Klaus Muempfer.

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