Steve Swallow: Carla (XtraWATT/2)

Carla

Steve Swallow
Carla

Carla Bley organ
Steve Swallow bass
Hiram Bullock guitar
Larry Willis piano
Victor Lewis drums
Don Alias percussion
Ida Kavafian violin
Ik-Hwan Bae viola
Fred Sherry cello
Recorded and mixed Winter 1986/87 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
General co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Produced by Steve Swallow and Carla Bley
Engineered and co-produced by Doug Epstein
Release date: October 1, 1987

This timeless love letter from Steve Swallow to Carla Bley belongs on the shelf alongside Sextet, as both albums emerged from the same sessions. The core band of guitarist Hiram Bullock, pianist Larry Willis, drummer Victor Lewis, and percussionist Don Alias applies, but is augmented by DW-6000 and DW-8000 synthesizers, played by the lifelong lovers of the hour, and a bona fide string trio. Those extra forces enhance the underlying mood with such a high level of atmospheric integrity that the music they wrap themselves around is elevated to an emotional state far beyond nostalgia.

The quirky cover photograph makes more sense once the luxuriance of “Deep Trouble” unravels its melody like an unwanted cigarette. The tension between bliss and self-deprecation is real, and reminds us how falling in love is sometimes the greatest threat to everyday equilibrium. Bley’s fresh-out-of-the-oven organ—both here and in such tracks as “Fred And Ethel,” “Afterglow,” and “Last Night”—is as romantic as it is mysterious. Yet her spotlight is only as bright as Swallow’s compositions, which have the strength of a full moon. Whether coaxing a head-nodding rhythm from Alias and Lewis in “Count The Ways” or deferring to his partner’s sense of humor in “Hold It Against Me,” Swallow assures the listener of total comfort through slick key changes and unforced propulsions.

His ability to craft an environment is especially complex in “Crab Alley” and “Read My Lips.” With every shift of gear, he drives deeper into the chambers of his psyche, sticking a hand out of the window every now and then to take a Polaroid in his search for an authentic sense of self to lay down at his lover’s altar. And as Willis’s pianism propels the band into the stratosphere, we realize there’s still so much to discover within ourselves.

Carla is a crowning achievement for Swallow, through and through, and is about as enchanting as jazz gets. Something our hearts have heard before, because it hears us so well.

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