Release date: January 26, 2004
Color me overjoyed to see a :rarum compilation dedicated to Carla Bley, especially because most of its material does not appear on ECM proper but rather on Bley’s own WATT sublabel. And while the scope of her talents as composer and pianist can hardly be confined to a single disc, the fact that Bley herself (as every :rarum artist) chose the tracks presently collected means we can trace her fingerprints back to origin.
It seems there is little disagreement when it comes to shortlisting Bley’s most enduring works, and we can be sure that 1971’s Escalator Over The Hill would be one of them. From that epic amalgamation of poetry, jazz, and theater comes “Why,” a masterstroke (in an album replete with them) sung with solid charisma by Linda Ronstadt. The following decade unwraps the gift of “Silence” on 1983’s The Ballad Of The Fallen, an ECM production from bassist Charlie Haden’s Music Liberation Orchestra that reads some of Bley’s most mournful writing with depth and passion. Satellite touchstones from the WATT universe include the headstrong radicalism of “Walking Batteriewoman” (Social Studies, 1981), the gospel warmth of “More Brahms” (Sextet, 1987), and the sensual “Fleur Carnivore.” The latter, from her 1989 album of the same name, glistens with sweat and tears, turning solos inside out until their grit becomes palpable.
The 1990s pull out a more whimsical backdrop streaked with the hot pinks of “On The Stage In Cages” (Big Band Theory, 1993), the oranges of “Chicken” (Songs With Legs, 1995) in her phenomenal trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow, and the classical tans of “End Of Vienna” (Fancy Chamber Music, 1998). The most joyful palette of this era is arrayed in “Major” from 1999’s Are we there yet? This live duet between Bley and Swallow works its jigsaw magic without fear of being misunderstood.
In the most recent selection, “Baseball” (4×4, 2000), we find her humorous take on Americana in full effect. From the windup and pitch to a grand slam of a denouement, its organ, horns, and piano loose not a single wasted note. As in the oldest selection, her classic “Ictus,” as interpreted by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 (1961, reissued by ECM in 1992), we see her approach of life as music should be: in the moment, of the moment, and for the moment. We can feel these performances because they feel us back.