Roswell Rudd trombone
Carlos Ward alto and tenor saxophones, flute
Michael Mantler trumpet
Bob Stewart tuba
Richard Tee piano, electric bass
Eric Gale guitar (on “Dreams So Real,” “Dining Alone,” and “Ida Lupino”)
Cornell Dupree guitar (on “Sing Me Softly Of The Blues” and “Funnybird Song”)
Carla Bley organ (piano introduction on “Sing Me Softly Of The Blues,” vocal on “Dining Alone,” piano and tenor saxophone on “Ida Lupino”)
Gordon Edwards bass guitar
Steve Gadd drums
Recorded July through September and mixed October 1976 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Michael Mantler
Produced by Carla Bley and George James
Executive producer: Michael Mantler
Release date: September 1, 1977
Now that we have been thoroughly psychoanalyzed by Michael Mantler’s dramaturgical shadows, leaving behind the jetlag from our trip, we can at last eat our fill and bask in the glow of Carla Bley’s Dinner Music. Our date with this ten-tet falls under the banner of CLASSIC for several reasons. First, it introduces a big band format that will serve Bley well in the decades to come. Second, it gives her room to interpret some of her most inspired tunes for the first time in the studio (after having been recorded by Paul Bley and others). Third, it welcomes saxophonist Carlos Ward, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and tuba player Bob Stewart into the fold. Fourth, it sets the tonal balance of wit and rigor that defines a particularly fruitful era of her genius.
This time around, the bandleader and composer relegates the pianistic duties to Richard Tee and opts mostly for organ, thereby adding warmth of character and a tingling personality. That said, she does use the piano to heat up the appetizer of “Sing Me Softly Of The Blues.” The sounds of a meal serve as backdrop while joy and self-derision pass around the same funky libation, compelling Rudd to raise an early toast (also check out his dialogue with a trumpeting Mantler on “Song Sung Long”). “Sing Me Softly Of The Blues” also happens to be the title of record by the Art Farmer Quartet, which included the timeless “Ad Infinitum,” also heard here. Though smoother than its surrounding courses, Bley keeps us on our aural toes with some interesting changes in the organ.
“Dreams So Real” (recorded the year before on the eponymous album by Gary Burton for ECM) is another laid-back beauty, replete with electric undercurrent, as is “Dining Alone.” Rudd and Ward are a lovely leading pair, while the electric guitar of Eric Gale is incisive and intriguing. Yet what on the surface appears to be even-tempered teems with chaos and fascinations beneath. Bley sings on the latter tune with a touch of melancholy that cannot be washed away with any amount of champagne. “Ida Lupino” is the standout dish. The sound of a crowd sets the scene as Bley warms up on the piano (she also plays tenor saxophone). And when the rhythm section of bassist Gordon Edwards and drummer Steve Gadd kicks in with a solid groove, and the flute of Carlos Ward draws out the sunset just a little longer than physics will allow, the band unravels a pioneering atmosphere. Bley even references herself by reprising “Funnybird Song” from Tropic Appetites. In this instance it is instrumental, upbeat, and optimistic. Our aperitif is served in a glass etched with the words “A New Hymn.” This anthemic wonder, swirling with full-bodied horns, goes down easy.
Looking back on the meal, I only wish the spices of Edwards and Gadd had been applied more liberally throughout this quintessential meal, as they seem relatively faint in the mix. Otherwise, every flavor stands out in relation to the rest. This is also one of Bley’s best titles for conveying the sheer amount of effort that goes into preparing a dinner, especially for a large group. And despite the energy spent, chef Bley must be “on” for the dinner itself, prolonging her rest that much longer for the sake of her honored guests. In that sense, the music leans against desperation, even as it succeeds in cleaning every plate as if it were the last. This is Bley at her most delectable.