Bley/Sheppard/Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM 2669)

2669 X

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded May 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 14, 2020

For its third ECM outing, pianist Carla Bley’s trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow mixes up an antidote for these times of uncertainty and quarantine. The title suite is the first of three comprising the program. Given that “Life Goes On” came out of a recent brush with illness, it’s fitting that Bley should begin in the dark whimsy of the blues. Her left hand plows fertile soil before leaving Sheppard and Swallow to sow their thematic crop. Years of experience and collaboration funnel into Swallow’s intimate rapport with Bley and into Sheppard’s unforced, spiritual playing. The latter, whether breathing through tenor or soprano, takes two steps forward for every retreat.

A sardonic humor assumes center stage in the three-part “Beautiful Telephones.” The title, quoting a certain leader of the free world, speaks of dire political circumstances, which, like the dial tone of a nation on hold, keeps us hopeful for something that may never come. The central movement reveals some of the deepest conversations and finds Sheppard in an especially soulful mood. The jagged finish is about as astute a commentary as one could pen on the current state of things without words.

The trio saves its most lyrical for last in “Copycat”, which holds a candle to some neglected parts of the human condition. There’s so much beauty in the opening “After You” that only the vessel of the playful title section is big enough to contain it. Setting a tongue in every cheek, it coaxes us with a promise of better times.

Holding it all together is an almost photorealistic approach to life. Like the score pages above Bley’s face on the cover, time feels suspended at just the right moment to reveal a smile of hope beneath it all.

(This review originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

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