Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
As the first leader date by Carla Bley to appear on ECM, Trios is a benchmark event. Having populated the label’s satellite ventures—notably WATT and JCOA—for four decades, there was never any need to shelter the legendary pianist-composer from the rain under the parent umbrella, for her climate is her own and here brings a quiet storm. With bandmates Steve Swallow (electric bass) and Andy Sheppard (saxophones) she hands to the eager listener a thoughtful program of original material that crystallizes decades more of intuitive collaboration.
Bley notes the oddity, if not also the liberation, of recording in the presence of producer Manfred Eicher: “This was the first time in my life that I’d worked under the direction of a producer and I wanted to know what it was like, and what I could gain from it. He had some wild ideas—like starting with ‘Utviklingssang,’ which we’d normally play after a few fast numbers, or as an encore.” Indeed, caught in the spell of the album’s opener, one can’t help but feel welcomed by Swallow’s introductory embrace. Its shape is horizontal but its feel is aquatic, adrift in a vessel fashioned from hammers and reed. Bley’s unity with Swallow is the perfect seascape for Sheppard’s quiet Schooner. The latter’s tenoring is, by turns, unbreakable and thin as winter ice, at times hiding behind a veil of bare audibility, while Swallow’s tone is more rounded and resonant to the core. The Norwegian title of this lilting theme translates as “Development Song,” and is as apt a description as any of Bley’s compositional craft, for this and every piece that follows shows evolution internally and in combination with others.
Although it would be futile to single out any one musician above the others in such an intimate congregation, each player does have moments of peak clarity. Sheppard’s silken soprano, for one, enchants in “Vashkar” with fluid moon-bursts and leaping, yet never overextended, arpeggios. Lightly stitched by Swallow’s skeletal bass line, the unit builds methodical ascent into an attic of potent melodic storage. This is also the album’s oldest partition, well worn by ECM listeners from its appearance on 1975’s Hotel Hello, the classic duo session between Swallow and Gary Burton. As writer Paul Haines, of whom the titular Vashkar was a dear friend, once noted, “Swallow seems always to be playing from within the music,” and one need listen no further than “Les Trois Lagons” for evidence. This triptych of “Plates” draws its inspiration from a 1947 book of paper cutouts by Henri Matisse entitled, appropriately enough, Jazz. That these pieces achieve the album’s deepest traction is due in large part to Swallow’s effortless continuity, which keeps Sheppard’s effervescence from touching sky by holding it to roots. Even when Bley embraces the foreground for a little while, she cannot help but coax the ever-vibrant Swallow from hiding into an interactive fairytale. The central tableau emotes a club feel. One can almost feel the warmth of a glass-enclosed candle flame flickering at the center of a corner table while the din of conversation makes way for the rustle of clothing and nostalgic gazes. Melodically unfolded and deepened by Swallow’s pliant sensibilities into a cocktail of regret and resolution, it stretches the night as if it were made of muscle. The final section boasts a wondrous economy of expression from Bley. Her spiral staircase of block chords ushers in echoes from Swallow and Sheppard and brings dark inflections into light.
The album’s second threefold suite comes in the form of “Wildlife,” which finds the pianist enamored by her artful surroundings and shaded yet fertile atmosphere. Like a child lifting a fallen tree, it revels in the wealth of life squirming beneath. Some moments are bound to remind listeners of early Lyle Mays, simultaneously grounding and singing with unwavering insight. It is the pinnacle of the album’s many achievements.
Last but far from least is one final trilogy, “The Girl Who Cried Champagne.” What begins as a tender groove of introspective proportion turns into an excursion of great distance. With the regularity of ocean surf, Bley paints waves with her eyes closed and by this rhythm Swallow is inspired to adorn the ether with his curvaceous filigree. Along with Sheppard’s language, it forges a nonabrasive ebullience that flows without impediment until the reedman leads the trio with responsive brushwork to a halt, pitch-perfect and smiling.
Trios is the virtuosity of restraint personified and is played with a breeziness that speaks of immense experience and shared knowledge. The music enacts a logical, astute progression—from gas to liquid to solid—that is so open one can lie down and float comfortably into its spell. It’s a level of comfort and freedom that only the most heartfelt journeying can bring, and its first step touches earth the moment you press PLAY.
(To hear samples of Trios, click here.)