Escalator Over The Hill
Jack Bruce voice
Linda Ronstadt voice
Jeanne Lee voice
Paul Jones voice
Carla Bley voice
Don Preston voice
Sheila Jordan voice
The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra
Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman saxophones
Don Cherry, Michael Mantler, Enrico Rava trumpets
Roswell Rudd trombone
Perry Robinson clarinet
John McLaughlin guitar
Leroy Jenkins violin
Charlie Haden double bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded November 1968 at RCA Recording Studios, New York (engineer: Paul Goodman), November 1970-June 1971 at RCA Recording Studios, New York (engineers: Ray Hill, Jim Crotty, Pat Martin, Dick Baxter, Gus Mossler, and Tom Brown), March 1971 at Empirical Sound, at the Cinematheque, New York (courtesy Jonas Mekas and Richard Foreman; engineer: Dave Jones), and June 1971 at Butterfly Mobile Sound Van, at the Public Theatre, New York (courtesy Joseph Papp and Bernard Gersten; engineers: Karl Sjodahl, Bob Fries, Nelson Weber, and Wes Wickemeyer)
Editing: Carla Bley
Mixing: Carla Bley, Michael Mantler, Karl Sjodahl, and Ray Hall
Production and coordination: Michael Mantler
Escalator Over The Hill is widely considered to be the magnum opus of Carla Bley. And while the pianist, composer, and arranger went on to have a flourishing career in all of those capacities, there’s something to be said for EOTH’s cult status in the annals of jazz (and her own) history. Referred to by Bley, and the increasingly massive crew required to produce it, as an “opera” for shorthand, it is officially billed as a “chronotransduction.” The term comes from the mind of Sheridan (“Sherry”) Speeth, a scientist befriended by EOTH’s librettist, Paul Haines. Given the slipstream nature of what any new listener poised over the PLAY button is ill-prepared to expect, Speeth’s neologism bears the brunt of describing these goings on. More on that below.
Haines, we know from Bley’s own account, sent her a poem in early 1967. At the time, she was working on a piece called “Detective Writer Daughter,” soon to become the seed for the EOTH forest. Shortly thereafter, Haines moved to India, and from his new home sent more texts over the next three years. Even before the piece took shape as such in Bley’s mind, she knew exactly who to train her creative telescope on—namely, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and its satellite talents—in search of worthy interpreters. Their orbits were as complementary as the sonic solar system that defined them was organic. What she lacked, however, was an asteroid belt of singers. Notes Bley, as quoted in The Penguin Jazz Guide: “I used every musician I knew for the cast. I even used some people I didn’t know; all they had to do was ask to be in it and I said: “Of course you can.’ At one point I needed some extra chorus voices quickly so I went out on the street in front of the studio and enlisted passers-by.” Her then-husband Michael Mantler recruited Jack Bruce, but it fell upon Bley to seek out the rest. Her search led her early on to actress Viva (one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars”) and later to Steve Ferguson (NRBQ), Paul Jones (Manfred Mann), and Don Preston (Mothers of Invention). Even as forces were gathering, finances were dwindling, as were her relationships with the record company originally slated to back the project, when Sherry and Sue Speeth donated a whopping $15,000 to unclog the drain. This act of generosity (combined with other funding sources) allowed them to move forward with total independence, and even access to RCA Recording Studios. Due to the sizable cast and conflicting schedules, it was nearly impossible to get everyone in the same room, meaning that some had to be recorded separately and fused on the laboratory table of the mixing board. Seventy-five reels of tape later, and after much barrel scraping and knuckle busting (as Bley furiously wrote out every part by hand), she still did not have her Ginger, a politically central figure among EOTH’s dramatis personae. Paul Motian floated the idea of Linda Ronstadt, “who said she had never been confronted with music so difficult,” Bley recalls. Once Ronstadt sent in her tapes by mail to New York from Los Angeles, the final piece of the vocal puzzle fell into place.
With that, let us return to the chronotransduction.
Chrono: Latin root from the Greek khronos, meaning “time.” At once vague and specific. To be sure, everything we encounter along this eclectic train ride—as big band impulses fight for bench space with Kurt Weil dinner theater, Indian classical forms, and progressive rock—has much to do with distortions and questionings of time. Even before a single voice throws a pitch, the windup of Hotel Overture delineates a space where nature and technology engage in melodic congress. The overture itself has a time marking—13 minutes and 11 seconds, to be precise—but the strokes of those numerals feel more like the wrought-iron cars of a prison than the window thrown open by the hands of their inscriber. From this parthenogenetic wellspring echo horns of regression. Just as the gloom is about to turn into doom, Roger Dawson’s conga and Paul Motian’s drums flip on a stage light so that the clarinet of Perry Robinson can rip into the foreground of this carnivalesque nightmare in stark relief. Gato Barbieri’s tenor saxophone likewise unleashes a guttural catharsis for the ages, one that must be heard with every fiber of its being. The preparation of all this is such that when a droning choir of voices overlays our brokenness in This Is Here… we feel it like a swarm of fireflies rent for all humanity.
Cecil Clark’s Old Hotel deepens our impression of time through the matter-of-fact worldview of the Doctor (Don Preston), who has the honor of introducing the album’s title, a metaphor of complicity in the violence of capitalist production. A four-year-old Karen Mantler (daughter of Carla and Michael) utter the comment du jour: “Riding uneasily.” Thus do the men of EOTH’s world proceed to travel, their pulses determining the flow of life until they cease to beat. Barbieri pushes through the pomp and circumstance, calling out to a soul that doesn’t wish to be found. Bley bids everyone to stay awake, as if we might fall prey to a global concussion. The loudspeaker cuts her off, as naysayers often do. But she presses on with dialogic fortitude. Sheila Jordan, singing as the “Used Woman,” further understands the folly of fleshly burdens. In the wake of these disturbances, we are treated to a brief performance by the hotel lobby band in “Song To Anything That Moves.”
The march of the present proceeds to take us Off Premises, as Jack Bruce shouts his corporate angst across the airwaves of his traveling band (John McLaughlin on electric guitar, Bley on organ, Bruce on electric bass, and Motian on drums). Ronstadt lends her crystalline voice to “Why,” which feels like a country tune staged as a farce of climactic achievement. As Ginger, she battles the vagaries of a world that no longer regards itself in the mirror. Beyond the door of Cecil Clark’s, Bruce guides us to the piece that started it all, “Detective Writer Daughter.” This thinly veiled analysis of a broken citizenry looking for leadership while the blood of assassination still stings their eyes sets up “Doctor Why,” in which Bruce’s banter with Ronstadt cracks faces open like diaries better left unread. After the brooding “Slow Dance (Transductory Music),” we get the “Smalltown Agonist,” in which explosions of lies and truth comingle until neither is distinguishable from the other.
Thus have we entered the realm of the transduction. The word describes the process by which energies or messages are converted from one form into another. Whether In The Meadow Or In Hotels, in which Bley sings as the laboratorial Mutant, or in “Over Her Head,” in which she mourns a fallen nationhood, each utterance becomes thought. Amid this unsettling mix of whimsy and self-protection, Charlie Haden’s bass line mocks beneath McLaughlin’s acoustic, as if to express the impossibility of change from what was known before.
In Flux opens with “Oh Say Can You Do,” a duet between Bley on calliope and Bill Leonard as Calliope Bill, sharing the inevitability of misdirection in our lives. This is followed by “Holiday In Risk,” which I can only describe as Meredith Monk doing cabaret. The obligatory nod across the pond comes in the form of “A.I.R. (All India Radio),” which launches Don Cherry’s trumpet over arid terrain, replete with dumbek (played by Souren Baronian) and Motian on glittering percussion. All is but a preview of the nearly 13-minute “Rawalpindi Blues.” McLaughlin’s electric dialogues in the flames of Bruce’s bass, while Motian beats the air into submission, transitioning into Cherry’s desert caravan. Cherry also sings as the Sand Shepherd, carrying us over into “End Of Rawalpindi,” with Jeanne Lee as Ginger II in a passionate helix of description with Bruce. Those same two ensembles blister in a fusion-esque universe that would seem to parallel John Abercrombie’s Timeless.
Because all music must come to an end, Over The Hill reads like an obituary. After the doctor’s final prescription in “End Of Animals,” we encounter the 27-minute masterpiece of “…And It’s Again.” Barring some cryptic lyrics (e.g., “The hectic silhouettes of chins”), the mood is lucid, especially in the horns (among them Michael Mantler on trumpet and Roswell Rudd on trombone), backed by Haden and Motian, before ending on a long hum, made possible by a lock groove in the original vinyl. Of that almighty drone, we get 20 minutes before the curtain closes.
Perhaps it’s the pall of pandemic and social distancing that hangs over me as I write this, but I cannot help hear EOTH as a meta-statement about suffering. Not only for the persecution of those who stand up for their beliefs, but for those who never got the chance. It’s more than a relic of its time. It’s a relic about time and its infinite transductions from concept to physical reality. And Bley has all the scars to prove it.