Carla Bley: Social Studies (WATT/11)

Social Studies

Carla Bley
Social Studies

Michael Mantler trumpet
Carlos Ward soprano and alto saxophones
Tony Dagradi tenor saxophone, clarinet
Gary Valente trombone
Joe Daley euphonium
Earl McIntyre tuba
Carla Bley organ, piano
Steve Swallow bass
D. Sharpe drums
Recorded September through December 1980
Mixed January 1981 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Produced by Carla Bley
Release date: April 1, 1981

After leaving the matinee showing of Michael Mantler’s More Movies, there’s no better place to go than the library to check out Carla Bley’s Social Studies. Though distinguished by many features, this 1981 session is the timeless embodiment of what a classic should be. Not only is every tune a staple of her repertoire; it also introduces yet another talented reed player to the Bley family in Tony Dagradi, whose clarinet lends nostalgic warmth to the flirtatious “Copyright Royalties” and whose hickory tenor gives defining flavor to “Útviklingssang.” The latter, one of Bley’s highest compositional peaks, plays further to the strengths of fellow saxophonist Carlos Ward and bassist Steve Swallow. It floats, slumbers, and moves in sequence with time itself. It is the speed of life, personified in melody.

Flip to any page of this set, and you’ll find something as emblematic as a sigil, watermark, or ring seal pressed into wax. “Reactionary Tango” is as social as any of these studies. The horns are precise and delicate (especially Ward’s soprano), as is the snare of drummer D. Sharpe and Swallow’s exquisite bassing. Just when you think it ends, it continues with gentle persistence, as if it were a chapter in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. “Valse Sinistre” balances the groove of Bley’s organ with Swallow’s propulsive (but never overbearing) bassing. Swallow also picks up the first needle of “Floater” and threads his way with confidence. In lockstep with Sharpe at every turn, he exhibits a rainbow of colors. Finally, in “Walking Batteriewoman” we get the most vital of footnotes. Its shaded whimsy shifts into high gear halfway through, finishing in artful post-bop wisdom.

Of all the albums in the Bley catalog, this one is for me the most cohesive in terms of concept, aesthetic, and execution. Social Studies is more than a catchy title, but the very ethos of everything she lays her hands to.

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