The Very Big Carla Bley Band: s/t (WATT/23)

The Very Big Carla Bley Band

The Very Big Carla Bley Band

Lew Soloff, Guy Barker, Claude Deppa, Steven Bernstein trumpets
Gary Valente, Richard Edwards, Fayyaz Virji trombones
Ashley Slater bass trombone
Roger Jannotta oboe, flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone
Wolfgang Puschnig alto saxophone, flute
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Pete Hurt tenor saxophone, clarinet
Pablo Calogero baritone saxophone
Steve Swallow bass
Carla Bley piano
Karen Mantler organ
Victor Lewis drums
Don Alias percussion
Recorded October 29/30, 1990 at Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg, Germany
Engineer: Carlos Albrecht
Mixed at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York
General co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: April 1, 1991

If the explosion of sentiment that embraced Carla Bley in the mid-1980s led to a soul-defining period, then let this 18-piece extravaganza be the backdraft that pulled her into a wider angle. Despite boasting trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist Gary Valente, and saxophonists Wolfgang Puschnig and Andy Sheppard as frontline soloists, it’s not the most groundbreaking of sessions, but a respectable enough jewel in the Bley crown.

Right off the bat, “United States” shows us just how much Bley’s sense of humor has grown. From the splashing cymbals of Victor Lewis to the anthemic inflections of bassist Steve Swallow, there’s much to admire in this ensemble’s knack for unpacking a giant suitcase and leaving it the way they found it by the time they’re through. The initial feeling is one of almost sardonic pleasure, but as the soloing becomes more forthright, we find that honesty is indeed the best policy. The proverbial soapbox serves as a stage for Soloff’s biting cynicism, Valente’s political edge, Puschnig’s street smarts, and Sheppard’s down-home wisdom.

“Strange Arrangement” dons the set’s cheekiest title, as the arrangement is rather tame compared to her earlier work. The primary focus here (as throughout), however, is on her fabulous horn section. Whether opening with their bouquet in “All Fall Down” or tooling the binding of “Lo Ultimo,” they add flavor upon flavor without reserve. The latter’s baritone spotlight, courtesy of Pablo Calogero, is one of many elements that make the tune an album standout, even if we must drag our ears a bit to get there. Like the bluesier “Who Will Rescue You?” it slides into home by the skin of its teeth.

Though not as multidimensional as what came before, the feeling is sincere, the compositions solid, and the performances top-notch. This album is also notable for being recorded in Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, Germany, where many classic ECM albums were also laid down. The sound is consequently impeccable. Nothing dominates. Given that the influence of Mingus lives large in Bley’s arrangements, we might do best to read this session as a snapshot of a mood expertly crafted for posterity.

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