Carla Bley: Big Band Theory (WATT/25)

Big Band Theory

Carla Bley
Big Band Theory

Alex Balanescu violin
Lew Soloff, Guy Barker, Claude Deppa, Steve Waterman trumpets
Gary Valente, Richard Edwards, Annie Whitehead trombones
Ashley Slater bass trombone
Roger Jannotta soprano saxophone, flute
Wolfgang Puschnig alto saxophone, flute
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Pete Hurt tenor saxophone
Julian Argüelles baritone saxophone
Carla Bley piano
Karen Mantler organ
Steve Swallow bass
Dennis Mackrel drums
Recorded July 2/3, 1993 at Angel Studios, London
Engineer: Gary Thomas
Mixed at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: October 1, 1993

In the footsteps of her last (very) big band effort—which, despite its competence isn’t my favorite—Carla Bley returns with a masterstroke of the genre. It’s all here: catchy titles, musicians who share a profound cohesion, and tunes to unpack with joy. “On the Stage in Cages” sets the tone by jumping into the woodwork and rearranging every whorl with confidence. Bley’s band, holding firm at 18 members, swings with renewed purpose, as if waking up from the slumber of hiatus in a sublime return to form. This is followed by one of the highest peaks in the Bley mountain range: “Birds of Paradise.” Commissioned by the 1992 Glasgow Jazz Festival, it foregrounds violinist Alex(ander) Balanescu, whose folk-tinged glow warms this body from the inside before morphing into a moody and dramatic pile of brass. Bley’s characteristic attention to detail throughout this 20-minute journey is as varied as any life that could contain it.

Bley taps the inkwell of her muse, Charles Mingus, in a personal arrangement of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which despite its straight-laced veneer sports a dark monologue from bass trombonist Ashley Slater, alluring trumpeting by Lew Soloff, and a gentle swing beneath it all. Bley comes up from this dedicatory nod with her own “Fresh Impression” firmly in hand. This blast of sunshine yields a robust solo from Andy Sheppard on tenor, as if to emphasize the flow of memory he and the others ride to the present moment. It and everything that precedes is indeed fresh music that imparts its invitation to all listeners. This is Bley’s house, and the catering has been perfectly laid out before we even walk in.

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