Bley/Sheppard/Swallow: Songs With Legs (WATT/26)

Songs With Legs

Carla Bley
Andy Sheppard
Steve Swallow
Songs With Legs

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded live on tour in France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Turkey, and England, May 1994
Engineer: Bill Strode
Mixed at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: January 1, 1995

Songs With Legs is easily among my Top 5 WATT releases. Not only for the wonderful music it contains, but also for debuting of one of the finest trios still working today (see my review of their performance at Denver’s Dazzle last year). By this time, pianist/composer Carla Bley had already found her soulmate in electric bassist Steve Swallow and had released a couple of duo albums to prove it. But saxophonist Andy Sheppard had appeared on a few of Bley’s big band projects and was proving himself to be a natural fit in her sonic nucleus. This first triangulation of their gifts is magic from corner to corner to corner.

Slightly off-kilter pianism introduces “Real Life Hits,” a scene that only Bley could have painted with these two allies. Recorded live during a European tour in May of 1994, this performance captures the spirit of in-the-moment interplay. Swallow assumes a guitarist’s role, adding delicate chords and harmonies, while Sheppard, thus far notable for his muscular tenor playing in larger ensemble contexts, assumes the rounded comportment through soprano. That said, his smoky tenor pairs exceptionally well with the Thelonious Monk standby “Misterioso” and Bley’s own “The Lord Is Listenin’ To Ya, Hallelujah!” The latter, having undergone a soulful mellowing since its last appearance on Carla Bley’s Live!, feels more like a prayer of gratitude than a desperate call for grace. Swallow’s comforts know no bounds here.

As ever, whimsy waits in the wings, and we get plenty of it in “Chicken” (more of a duo showcase for piano and bass, with some subtle tenor swing for good measure) and “Wrong Key Donkey,” which peaks at 12 minutes and, as with Bley’s previously iterated tunes, gives up its secrets without hesitation so that we might feel its story from the inside out. Bley’s reading is linear and honest, while Sheppard’s soprano waters flower after expository flower. Swallow’s solo is subdued yet rich. The trio ends with “Crazy With You.” This love letter to creativity, laid sweetly on the altar of life, points our attention to self-evident truths, and by that gesture confirms Bley’s star in the constellation of jazz history.

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