The Carla Bley Big Band: Looking For America (WATT/31)

Looking For America

The Carla Bley Big Band
Looking For America

Earl Gardner, Lew Soloff, Byron Stripling, Giampaolo Casati trumpets
Robert Routch French horn (“The Mothers”)
Jim Pugh, Gary Valente, Dave Bargeron trombones
David Taylor bass trombone
Lawrence Feldman alto and soprano saxophones, flute
Wolfgang Puschnig alto saxophone, flute
Andy Sheppard, Craig Handy tenor saxophones
Gary Smulyan baritone saxophone
Karen Mantler organ, glockenspiel
Carla Bley
piano, conductor
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums
Don Alias percussion
Recorded October 7 & 8, 2002 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Assistants: Brian Montgomery and Josh Benezra
Mixed November 2002 by Tom Mark and Steve Swallow at The Make Believe Ballroom, West Shokan, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: May 5, 2003

Looking For America is yet another milestone in Carla Bley’s discographic adventure as leader of a big band. In addition to being her first to be recorded in New York’s famed Avatar Studios, it’s also a backdoor introduction of one of my favorite drummers, Billy Drummond, into her gene pool. Add to that a twisted smile across the visage of modern politics, one so derisive that it prompted a disclaimer on the back page of the CD booklet exempting the musicians and label from the views expressed therein, and you have a cogent musical essay on the spirit of its age.

Starting and trail-marking the album are four maternal preludes: “Grand Mother,” “Step Mother,” “Your Mother,” and “God Mother.” These blushes of horns, cymbals, and bass are letters to ancestors that came before and those yet to be, each a torchbearer of memory and moral legacies that change with the times. An equally deep nod to adaptation is “Fast Lane,” which enchants by virtue of Wolfgang Puschnig’s superb alto playing. Drummond and bassist Steve Swallow are locked in and give the band a secure springboard off which to jump before deferring to a tangle of horns.

“The National Anthem” swears itself into office over the course of five parts that hinge on a funky bass line from Swallow. Drummond and percussionist Don Alias dig deep and, over the next 22 minutes, adapt their color schemes to suit the message of every given moment. Feelings of patriotism butt up against cynical revisionism, each depending on the other to keep the harmony of free speech alive. Despite kaleidoscopic effect, if not because of it, allusions to Americana become borderless in a larger mosaic of meaning.

Running crosswise to this nationalistic angle are the moody dances of “Los Cocineros” and “Tijuana Traffic,” the latter a hat tip to the Tijuana Brass that looks back on memories as if through a flipbook. Sunbursts from trombonist Gary Valente and trumpeter Lew Soloff spearhead downright orchestral textures on the whole. Tying it all together is Bley’s arrangement of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.” Valente has tons of down-home fun with this staple, so thoroughly transplanted that it’s almost unrecognizable. Inspired to the last drop!

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