Carla Bley Trio: Andando el Tiempo (ECM 2487)

Andando el Tiempo

Carla Bley Trio
Andando el Tiempo

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded November 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 6, 2016

Andando el Tiempo, like any Carla Bley record, is more than a document; it’s a living testament to a genius whose relevance is as lasting as her need to express it. And express it she has for over two decades with the trio presented here. With saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow she has forged a triangle of almost-divine equality. Like its predecessor, Trios, the present session distills enormous ideas with natural assurance, but unlike that 2013 masterpiece does so through a program of entirely new material.

The title suite consists of three pieces, each dealing with the subject of addiction, as inspired by watching a friend go through the transformation of recovery and the great sacrifices required to grab hold of light when darkness is closing in from every side. “Sin Fin” represents that first step of self-awareness required to start on the path to freedom from substance abuse. The measured assessments woven into its melodic denouement are deeply illustrative of this process. Bley’s pianism evokes a vicious cycle of medication while Swallow offers glimpses of hope. But it’s the brush of Sheppard’s visceral tenor that absorbs most of Bley’s compositional ink, shedding its allegiance to demons for want of heavenly understanding. “Potación de Guaya” waters those seeds of faith with Sheppard’s life-giving soprano and Swallow’s yielding affirmations. After all this inwardness, “Camino al Volver” breaks the shell of dependence in favor of a brighter day. Its realism shows through in controlled exuberance.

Bley Trio

“Saints Alive!” is a more conversational piece that treats each instrument as a voice with something to say. Its free and easy atmosphere goes down like a tall glass of peach iced tea on a summer’s evening. In closing, “Naked Bridges/Diving Brides” takes its inspiration from Felix Mendelssohn and the poem “Peking Widow” by Paul Haines, who wrote the libretto for Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill. Written as a wedding gift for Sheppard and his wife Sara, it ties the final bow on a gift that no other coming together of musicians could have produced, making for one of the most honest and personal experiences to grace ECM’s catalog in years.

The Swallow Quintet: Into The Woodwork (XtraWATT/13)

Into The Woodwork

The Swallow Quintet
Into The Woodwork

Steve Swallow bass
Chris Cheek tenor saxophone
Steve Cardenas guitar
Carla Bley organ
Jorge Rossy drums
Recorded November 15/16, 2011 and mixed and mastered at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard De Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: 14 June 2013

Over a career spanning more than half a century, Steve Swallow has consistently redefined the electric bass as a jazz instrument. More importantly, he has taken any and every opportunity along the way to deepen his craft as a composer. His self-discipline in this regard has made every album seem at once a culmination and a stepping stone into greater futures. Into The Woodwork is no exception.


For this latest incarnation of his quintet, Swallow has chosen a lineup worthy of the subtlety on which these 12 original tunes nourish themselves. The tenor of reedman Chris Cheek, who made a noticeable ECM appearance as part of the Paul Motian Band on Garden of Eden, brings the smoke before the fire in “From Whom It May Concern,” a ballad that tilts its own thematic mirror toward artful reflection. Cheek also plays beautifully in “Unnatural Causes,” from the paint-by-number simplicity of which he unpacks the robustness of an unexpected spectrum. This tune is further notable for the contributions of guitarist and fellow Motian associate Steve Cardenas, whose unforced geometries settle us into the album’s intimacies by way of “Sad Old Candle.” Cardenas, in fact, proves to be the quintet’s greatest converser, whether exchanging remarkable banter with Cheek (“The Butler Did It”) or playing in duet with Swallow (“Suitable For Framing”). His lyricism pairs well, too, with the organ of Carla Bley, whose own omnipresence reveals another defining mastery in tunes like “Never Know,” “Still There,” and “Grisly Business.” The latter’s gentle carnivalesque is ideally suited to her touch at the keys.

Drummer Jorge Rossy is a constant thread to which the band looks for guidance, but especially in the more energetic turns such as “Back In Action” and “Exit Stage Left.” His understated groove actualizes Swallow’s ethos of less as more, and demonstrates that self-assured music need never be arrogant. And then there’s Swallow himself, whose first true solo doesn’t come until the album’s ninth track, “Small Comfort” fans the embers. The edge of his new custom bass sounds already finely aged over this bed of organ and cymbals, exposing a little more of his inner workings as brushed snare and tenor pull back the curtain to clarity.

In contrast to the steadied pacing of Swallow’s ECM outings, many tunes on Into The Woodwork flow into the next without break, thus keeping his atmospheric integrity in constant check. Like the title track itself, the album as a whole finds balance between the grounded and the free, always keeping one arm around the listener’s shoulder. The fact that this music doesn’t overtly challenge is a challenge in and of itself to experience its strengths as givens. Like an old friend, it may not often surprise, but its comforts are exactly where they need to be.

Carla Bley: Trios (ECM 2287)


Carla Bley

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As the first leader date by Carla Bley to appear on ECM, Trios is a benchmark event. Having populated the label’s satellite ventures—notably WATT and JCOA—for four decades, there was never any need to shelter the legendary pianist-composer from the rain under the parent umbrella, for her climate is her own and here brings a quiet storm. With bandmates Steve Swallow (electric bass) and Andy Sheppard (saxophones) she hands to the eager listener a thoughtful program of original material that crystallizes decades more of intuitive collaboration.

Bley notes the oddity, if not also the liberation, of recording in the presence of producer Manfred Eicher: “This was the first time in my life that I’d worked under the direction of a producer and I wanted to know what it was like, and what I could gain from it. He had some wild ideas—like starting with ‘Utviklingssang,’ which we’d normally play after a few fast numbers, or as an encore.” Indeed, caught in the spell of the album’s opener, one can’t help but feel welcomed by Swallow’s introductory embrace. Its shape is horizontal but its feel is aquatic, adrift in a vessel fashioned from hammers and reed. Bley’s unity with Swallow is the perfect seascape for Sheppard’s quiet Schooner. The latter’s tenoring is, by turns, unbreakable and thin as winter ice, at times hiding behind a veil of bare audibility, while Swallow’s tone is more rounded and resonant to the core. The Norwegian title of this lilting theme translates as “Development Song,” and is as apt a description as any of Bley’s compositional craft, for this and every piece that follows shows evolution internally and in combination with others.

Although it would be futile to single out any one musician above the others in such an intimate congregation, each player does have moments of peak clarity. Sheppard’s silken soprano, for one, enchants in “Vashkar” with fluid moon-bursts and leaping, yet never overextended, arpeggios. Lightly stitched by Swallow’s skeletal bass line, the unit builds methodical ascent into an attic of potent melodic storage. This is also the album’s oldest partition, well worn by ECM listeners from its appearance on 1975’s Hotel Hello, the classic duo session between Swallow and Gary Burton. As writer Paul Haines, of whom the titular Vashkar was a dear friend, once noted, “Swallow seems always to be playing from within the music,” and one need listen no further than “Les Trois Lagons” for evidence. This triptych of “Plates” draws its inspiration from a 1947 book of paper cutouts by Henri Matisse entitled, appropriately enough, Jazz. That these pieces achieve the album’s deepest traction is due in large part to Swallow’s effortless continuity, which keeps Sheppard’s effervescence from touching sky by holding it to roots. Even when Bley embraces the foreground for a little while, she cannot help but coax the ever-vibrant Swallow from hiding into an interactive fairytale. The central tableau emotes a club feel. One can almost feel the warmth of a glass-enclosed candle flame flickering at the center of a corner table while the din of conversation makes way for the rustle of clothing and nostalgic gazes. Melodically unfolded and deepened by Swallow’s pliant sensibilities into a cocktail of regret and resolution, it stretches the night as if it were made of muscle. The final section boasts a wondrous economy of expression from Bley. Her spiral staircase of block chords ushers in echoes from Swallow and Sheppard and brings dark inflections into light.

The album’s second threefold suite comes in the form of “Wildlife,” which finds the pianist enamored by her artful surroundings and shaded yet fertile atmosphere. Like a child lifting a fallen tree, it revels in the wealth of life squirming beneath. Some moments are bound to remind listeners of early Lyle Mays, simultaneously grounding and singing with unwavering insight. It is the pinnacle of the album’s many achievements.

Last but far from least is one final trilogy, “The Girl Who Cried Champagne.” What begins as a tender groove of introspective proportion turns into an excursion of great distance. With the regularity of ocean surf, Bley paints waves with her eyes closed and by this rhythm Swallow is inspired to adorn the ether with his curvaceous filigree. Along with Sheppard’s language, it forges a nonabrasive ebullience that flows without impediment until the reedman leads the trio with responsive brushwork to a halt, pitch-perfect and smiling.

Trios is the virtuosity of restraint personified and is played with a breeziness that speaks of immense experience and shared knowledge. The music enacts a logical, astute progression—from gas to liquid to solid—that is so open one can lie down and float comfortably into its spell. It’s a level of comfort and freedom that only the most heartfelt journeying can bring, and its first step touches earth the moment you press PLAY.

(To hear samples of Trios, click here.)

Charlie Haden: The Ballad Of The Fallen (ECM 1248)


Charlie Haden
The Ballad Of The Fallen

Charlie Haden bass
Carla Bley piano, glockenspiel, arrangements
Don Cherry pocket trumpet
Sharon Freeman French horn
Mick Goodrick guitar
Jack Jeffers tuba
Michael Mantler trumpet
Paul Motian drums, percussion
Jim Pepper tenor, soprano saxophones, flute
Dewey Redman tenor saxophone
Steve Slagle alto, soprano saxophones, clarinet, flute
Gary Valente trombone
Recorded November 1982, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Don’t ask me who I am
Or if you knew me
The dreams that I had
Will grow even though I’m no longer here.

Jazz is a music of oppression, or rather about resisting it. As such, it has the potential to liberate listeners—and, perhaps more importantly, performers—in ways that few other genres can. Which is precisely the paradox of the purist: in order to get to the heart of jazz, one must shut up and feel it. Intellectualizing just gets in the way. Charlie Haden is a purist, but it took him years to achieve that title, and his Liberation Music Orchestra represents a coming into his own as a musician, as a human being, as a force of peace and respect.

The LMO took shape at a time of upheaval. The Vietnam War was coming to a head, and the taste it seems to have left in Haden’s mouth could only be washed out with music. Through his sporadic activities with the LMO (the collective has averaged only one album per decade since its inception in the late 1960s), Haden now had a voice with which to purge widening circles of listeners of the warmongering and corruption he saw all around him until, hopefully, those circles began to touch. It was the voice of those who could not speak except through histories, a voice honed in the communal spirit that breathes through every note he’s played since.

Haden never chose his material in the authorial sense; the politics chose him. By the time of The Ballad Of The Fallen, the Reagan administration was pouring military spending into Central America, where Contra death squads left tens of thousands dead and corrupted countless others by covertly sponsoring dictatorial regimes and, by extension, their drug cartels. This brings us to Haden’s purism in another sense: as a onetime narcotics addict long since sober, he knew well the dangers of letting go of music’s hand. And so, through this second recording he and the LMO inscribed a poem of mourning for those who lost their lives in such conflicts, as well in the Spanish Civil War, for he might very well have become an indirect casualty had he not been awakened. Such motivations were never a gimmick in Haden’s hands, and the balanced arrangements, courtesy of Carla Bley, speak to (and for) hearts and minds committed to outreach.

“Els Segadors” (The Reapers), a song of revolt from the Spanish Civil War that would later become an anthem for the Catalan Republic, begins with a somber elegy for brass, which then flowers with the introduction of a funereal snare and glockenspiel. With this somber tone set, the heartrending El Salvadorean song that makes up the title track finds ground in Haden alongside Motian’s drums and the acoustic guitar of Mick Goodrick. The words it only hints at were discovered on the body of a student protester, who along with others died by military hands during a university sit-in. After two darkly lit marches, each insightful horn solo therein a message in a tarnished bottle, we arrive at “Introduction To People.” Bley’s first of two contributions to the album has the sweep of some of the early Arild Andersen quartets and is only enhanced by her rolling pianism and Haden’s ever-pellucid bass. Her second piece is “Too Late,” a pensive duet for piano and bass that frays into majestic horns. It is also the session’s heartbeat.

The Chilean freedom fighters’ anthem “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” lifts us upon a delicate floating carpet of horns, who continue to emote in the heavier “Silence” (Haden’s sole composition and among the session’s more powerful) that follows. In this chain of four-step phrases, we find ourselves lost in the memory of that which we can never know. Goodrick spins chant-like threads throughout “La Pasionaria,” suspended like stars while Dewey Redman plots his tenor along less determinable trajectories. Bley’s keys whip like a sidewinder through this rare breath of hope while Haden emotes as nowhere else. The Catalonian song “La Santa Espina” reprises the martial feeling with which the album began and breaks into a powerful reinstatement from brass.

This is a continuous suite of moods drifting through a passage in foliated time. The album’s resignations are palpable at every turn, each inhaling mourning and exhaling hope. This is death and memory, rebirth and diffusion, the flame of a forgotten past kept alive in the cavity of an unparalleled instrument and its practitioner.