Carla Bley: Fancy Chamber Music (WATT/28)

WATT-28-front

Carla Bley
Fancy Chamber Music

Carla Bley piano
Steve Morris violin
Andrew Byrt viola
Emma Black cello
Steve Swallow bass
Alison Hayhurst flute
Sara Lee clarinet, glockenspiel
Chris Wells percussion
Recorded December 5 & 6, 1997 at SnakeRanch Studio, London
Engineer: Robin Prior
Assistant engineer: Mark Chambers
Mixed and mastered at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: June 22, 1998

Carla Bley has always been known for spinning the wheel, but in this instance she lands on one of her most unusual and enchanting projects to date. The pieces assembled on Fancy Chamber Music are the results of commissions, leading to a program that could emerge from no mind so hybrid as hers. The touchstones are carved by “Romantic Notion #4” and “Romantic Notion #6” (incidentally, #3 made an appearance on her Duets with bassist Steve Swallow). Scored as they are here for winds and strings, they are re-orchestrated from eight piano pieces originally written for Ursula Oppens. Both are exercises in seeking, self-contained in appearance yet connective in spirit.

“Wolfgang Tango” adds piano and drums to those same instrumental forces. A thread of clarinet renders this one a wonder, as does Swallow’s bass, which moves in fine accord. The tango, such as it is, comes across as subdued, more cerebral than sensual, and gives the listener pause to connect the dots it highlights across the continental map of art music history. “End Of Vienna” swaps drums for vibraphone and anchors a translucent web of melody. As noted in the CD booklet, this “isn’t a waltz and it marked the end of a disturbing propensity to write pieces in three-quarter time.” Nevertheless, it undulates with a comforting regularity, drawing an unwitting (?) line of inspiration from the ensemble pieces of Gavin Bryars, and is among her most exquisite creations.

Strings, clarinet, piano, and percussion are the communication tools of choice for “Tigers In Training.” This 19-minute suite spans four parts and, in Bley’s words, “describes the tigers’ feeling toward their trainer and the other circus animals, memories of life in the wild, and various tricks and routines.” From hardboiled resignation to optimistic dreams, shades of Gershwin to anti-nostalgic airs, it sounds like an animal language translated for human ears. The crack of a whip cutting through strings enhances the imagery at hand to dazzling effect.

Bley harnesses the same combination for her encore, “JonBenet.” Despite being named after the six-year-old beauty queen who was viciously strangled in 1996, it is more benignly inspired by a faulty musical toy Bley once had as a child. Its tear-stained image of trauma fogs the windows of collective memory and overlays messages of hope with her fingertips. The cumulative effect of all this will surely stand the test of time as a masterwork, and is one of the few albums I would point to if someone asked me to define “chamber jazz.”

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