Carla Bley: Selected Recordings (:rarum 15)


Carla Bley
Selected Recordings
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.

Carla Bley/Paul Haines: Escalator Over The Hill (JCOA 2)

EOTH Cover

Carla Bley
Paul Haines
Escalator Over The Hill

Jack Bruce voice
Linda Ronstadt voice
Viva 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.


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.)

The Watt Works Family Album (WATT/22)

The Watt Works Family Album

The Watt Works Family Album

Having now traversed the entire WATT and XtraWATT catalogs, I feel it’s only appropriate to take a step back and admire the sheer variety of fish caught in this musical net. Thankfully, label owners Michael Mantler and Carla Bley assembled this compilation album to give us a representative selection. As noted in the CD booklet, WATT grew well beyond its nominal status as a record label into “a complete support system dedicated to the independent production of their music without compromise.” And while it may have been released on April 1, 1990, The Watt Works Family Album is no joke, but rather the thoughtful state of a union unlike any other.

Key artists from both labels are equitably represented. Bley gets first blush in her ravishing “Fleur Carnivore.” This 11-minute seduction isn’t without its elbows to the ribs, and pays worthy respect to her work for larger ensembles. “Walking Batteriewoman” jumps goes intimate in a duo version with bassist Steve Swallow, showing the breadth of her palette. Somewhere between the two in scope is the moonlit walk of “Talking Hearts,” left behind like a memory we hope will never end once the cringe of “I Hate To Sing” (from the brilliant vaudevillian album of the same name) takes over. “Ad Infinitum” (as it appears on 1977’s Dinner Music) expands Bley’s sound into even warmer climates, where the spirit of the age glows in our remembrance. The final Bley selection is “Funnybird Song,” which features a seven-year-old Karen Mantler. Fourteen years after that first appearance on record, she would make her leader debut, My Cat Arnold, from which we are treated to “Best Of Friends,” a delightful song about her love for mother Carla. As for father Michael, we are given deep, dark glimpses into a world of text and incidental soundtracks quite unlike anything else out there. From the genuine voices of Robert Wyatt in “A L’Abattoir” and Jack Bruce in “When I Run” to the orchestrally inflected powerhouses of “Twenty” and “Movie Six”—passing through Part 2 of Alien, which pairs Mantler’s trumpet with the synths of Don Preston, along the way—one can feel the stories aching to be told, even when no words are being sung. The two standalones are Swallow’s “Crab Alley” (a master class in fuzak) and Steve Weisberg’s “I Can’t Stand Another Night Alone (In Bed With You),” which for me is the sleeper hit of the XtraWatt portfolio.

After the pleasure of journeying through both labels, I can only thank you for joining me. I hope you took some pictures along the way.

Steve Swallow: Swallow (XtraWATT/6)


Steve Swallow

Steve Swallow bass
Steve Kuhn piano
Carla Bley organ
Karen Mantler synthesizer, harmonica
Hiram Bullock guitar
Robby Ameen
Don Alias percussion
Gary Burton vibes
John Scofield guitar
Recorded and mixed September-November 1991 by Tom Mark and Steve Swallow, Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Additional recording by Robin Coxe-Yeldham at Berklee Studio, Boston, MA
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
Synthesizer programming: Harvey Jones
General co-ordination: Karen Mantler
Produced by Steve Swallow and Carla Bley
Release date: March 1, 1992

In this self-titled set, bassist and composer Steve Swallow proves his strengths in both capacities. Leading a septet that includes Steve Kuhn on piano, Carla Bley on organ, Karen Mantler on synthesizer and harmonica, Hiram Bullock on guitar, Robby Ameen on drums, and Don Alias on percussion, along with special guests Gary Burton on vibes and John Scofield on guitar, he adds yet another hue to his spectrum of colors. Swallow has always been a lively player, and here his ability to bring high-energy grooves into focus sings with vibrancy. That said, a recumbent “William And Mary” pans the camera to Bley’s organ, as do “Thirty Five” and the Scofield-centric romance of “Doin’ It Slow,” for a more touching mode of expression.

Swallow pulls out all the stops in “Belles.” Kuhn introduces the tune, and the album proper, as an experience in which to luxuriate. Swallow’s nylon-rich five-string bass sounds more guitar-like than ever in its navigations of a soothing improvisational climate. Ameen and Alias give us plenty of beat to bite on, while Mantler’s synthesizer draws a humid undercurrent. Those electronic strains carry over into “Soca Symphony,” as does a certain emotional uplift—a cloud on which Swallow will ride until he lays his head in the pillow of Burton’s vibes.

“Slender Thread,” another quiet seduction, strikes that balance of kitsch and sophistication Swallow walks so well. Mantler’s harmonica rings out across the night, while the bass swims its own waters. But it’s Swallow’s crafting of tunes like “Thrills And Spills” that brings a pulse to every note. In addition to being another moment in the sun for Ameen and Alias, it finds Scofield tearing a hole in the atmosphere with scalpel precision. Swallow matches him lick for lick. “Ballroom” is another swinging excursion with clever chord changes and geometric guitar work. Grooving somewhere between those two poles is “Playing With Water,” a bossa nova of intimately epic proportions. Like the fadeouts in some of what precedes, it could potentially go on forever and, either way, resonates in the heart long after silence puts a finger to its lips.

Orchestra Jazz Siciliana: Plays The Music Of Carla Bley (XtraWATT/4)


Orchestra Jazz Siciliana
Plays The Music Of Carla Bley

Nico Riina, Massimo Greco, Pietro Pedone, Faro Riina, Giovanni Guttilla trumpets
Salvatore Pizzo, Salvatore Pizzurro trombones
Maurizio Persia bass trombone
Orazio Maugeri alto saxophone
Claudio Montalbano alto and soprano saxophones
Stefano D’Anna tenor saxophone
Alessandro Palacino tenor and soprano saxophones
Antonio Pedone baritone saxophone
Ignazio Garsia piano
Pino Greco guitar
Paolo Mappa drums
Sergio Cammalleri percussion
Guest artists:
Gary Valente trombone
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded direct to 2-track Digital Audio Tape at Brass Group Jazz Club and in concert at Teatro Metropolitan, Palermo, Sicily, May 11-16, 1989
Recording engineer: Lillo Sorrentino, assisted by Pino Passalacqua
Post-production by Steve Swallow and Carla Bley, November 1989, at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York, NY
General Co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Executive producer: Ignazio Garsia
Release date: October 1, 1990

Interpretations of a jazz composer as highly respected as Carla Bley can proceed one of (at least) two ways: either as springboard for idiosyncratic adlibbing and personal expression or as opportunity for an adoring homage. In the case of this recording by the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana under the direction of Bley herself, we get an instance of the latter. Each of these pieces has been re-orchestrated for big band by Jeff Friedman from their original versions and, with the exception of “Egyptian,” will be familiar to those who’ve kept an ear planted in her robust discography.

The sizable Italian ensemble, joined by special guests Gary Valente on trombone and Steve Swallow on bass, hits a line drive right off the bat with “440” by virtue of a faster pitch compared to its first appearance on record. Artisanal textures keep the melodic strengths of Bley’s writing front and center, while selective solos from altoist Orazio Maugeri and Valente serve to emphasize the smoothness of the undercurrent at hand. This gives way to the blues in “The Lone Arranger.” For this version, the banter is delivered (even by Bley herself) in Italian, making it a delightful standout. All of which feels like a grand prelude to the centerpiece: “Dreams So Real.” The present arrangement, compared to its siblings, is probably the most divergent from its source. With oodles of soul to reckon with, Valente’s trombone blasting across the airwaves with conviction, it evokes the title with gusto, and all of it framed by the beauty of guitarist Pino Greco.

The album’s remainder is taken from a May 1989 live recording at Teatro Metropolitan in Palermo. A tasteful reverb lifts the sound closer to the stratosphere, where some of the soloists like to spend their time. If Valente was the star of the first half (though one can hardly bat an eyelash at his solo in “Baby Baby”), this second half extols the wonders of tenor virtuoso Stefano D’Anna, whose backbone heightens the flexibility of such tunes as “Joyful Noise” and the outlying “Egyptian,” which lights Orientalism like a fuse and watches it explode with glee. In closing, we get hit with the cinematic flair of “Blunt Object.” The drums and percussion by Paolo Mappa and Sergio Cammalleri, respectively, along with Maugeri’s muscular turn at the plate, make this a solid home run.

The audience is into it, as should we be. Bravos all around.

Steve Swallow: Carla (XtraWATT/2)


Steve Swallow

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.

Carla Bley: Carla’s Christmas Carols (WATT/35)

Carla's Christmas Carols

Carla Bley
Carla’s Christmas Carols

Carla Bley piano, celeste
Steve Swallow bass, chimes
Tobias Weidinger trumpet, flugelhorn (lead), glockenspiel
Axel Schlosser trumpet, flugelhorn (soloist), chimes
Christine Chapman horn
Adrian Mears trombone
Ed Partyka bass trombone, tuba
Recorded December 8/9, 2008 and mixed and mastered at La Buissonne Studio, Pernes Les Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
“O Holy Night” and “Joy To The World” recorded live in Berlin on December 4 by Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: November 6, 2009

It seems altogether fitting, given Carla Bley’s religious jumping of ship, to come full circle in their biographical tendencies with this utterly reverent collection of well-known Christmas music. Joined by Steve Swallow and the Partyka Brass Quintet, Bley offers an album of original arrangements that speak to the heart of every song while drawing out something long-concealed by the artifice of commercialization.

The staples one would expect in such an assortment are all there. From the nostalgic uplift of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and “Jingle Bells” to the sincere gratitude of “The Christmas Song,” there’s plenty of spice to mull your cider. More interesting, however, are the splashes of rum to spike your egg nog. These come in the form of Bley’s clever harmonization of “O Tannenbaum,” in the addition of celeste of “Away In A Manger,” and in the soulful trombone of Adrian Mears in “Ring Christmas Bells.” Like those pops of air from logs settling in a fireplace, such moments court our attention in unforeseen directions while abiding by the comforts of the familiar. Axel Schlosser in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is another noteworthy soloist, by his flugelhorn lighting the set’s brightest candle.

Bley contributes two tunes of her own: the jauntier “Hell’s Bells” (replete with sarcastic allusion to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and, of course, the sound of jingle bells) and the processional “Jesus Maria,” which Swallow reads prayerfully through the bass. Moreover, we get two bonuses—“O Holy Night” and “Joy To The World”—recorded live in Berlin during the tour from which the band broke to make this album. The end effect is of childhood unwrapped like a present beneath the tree.

And with that, we come to what is (as of this writing) our final stop on the WATT train. We’ve been through a lot together, in terms of space and time, traversing cultures and even galaxies as easily as opening our ears. But let us never downplay the unquantifiable amount of energy and sacrifice Carla Bley has given to the world of sound in order to refashion it in her own image.

Carla Bley: The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (WATT/34)

TLC Find Paolo Fresu

Carla Bley
The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu

Paolo Fresu trumpet
Andy Sheppard soprano and tenor saxophones
Carla Bley piano
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums
Recorded May 19/20 and mixed and mastered August 19-21, 2007 at La Buissonne Studio, Pernes Les Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: October 26, 2007

The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu is one of those rare albums that not only tells but also demonstrates a story through deft self-presentation. The CD booklet is a journey in and of itself, laying down the music’s backstory to the point of admirable absurdity.

WATT-34-booklet- 7

When we first encounter the quartet of Carla Bley (piano), Andy Sheppard (soprano and tenor saxophones), Steve Swallow (bass), and Billy Drummond (drums), they’ve just been traveling south of the American border, when they hear tell of Paolo Fresu, who has been teaching and playing nearby. So begins a search for the elusive trumpeter that takes them to Central America:

Costa Rica

In the wake of all that drama, they learn that Fresu is in Rome, and off they go to the Italian capital by way of Paris, while on tour, to find him at last:


The interpretations that emerge from this seemingly fated alignment of signatures are as variegated as the mythology that binds them. “The Banana Quintet” is a six-part suite in quintessential Bley style. Fresu opens by extending an invitation to Sheppard’s tenor before Drummond’s brushes prime the canvas for every stroke that follows. The many allusions contained therein, spanning the gamut from the Beatles to the blues, parallel the tonal combinations that comprise them. And while the mood is gentle at heart, peaks of expression arise where needed. Fresu knows how to handle these with grace, and gives them a retrospective cogency to balance the wit at hand. Whether in the wryly peeled “Three Banana” or the melodically sophisticated “Four,” the quintet knows where it’s going at every interval. Some of the most rhapsodic textures come across in “Five Banana,” in which dovetailed bass and drums allow Sheppard’s tenor to leap with ecstasis and Fresu’s trumpet to unravel a spectrum’s worth of tonal colors. Indeed, Fresu shows himself to be close in spirit to Enrico Rava when it comes to lyrical approach. Sheppard gives over to beauties of his own, mind-melding with Fresu along lines of emotional timbre.

“Death Of Superman / Dream Sequence #1 – Flying,” written in memory of Christopher Reeve, spins pianistic thermals for Swallow’s outstretched wings. Delicate cymbals streak like clouds in flyby, a muted trumpet stringing chains of memory in their wake. The band bows out with a reading of Bley’s classic “Ad Infinitum” that, while relatively straightforward in arrangement, elicits particular grit from Sheppard as Drummond adds sunset gradations.

Pristinely recorded at La Buissonne Studio in Pernes Les Fontaines, with Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard engineering, the effect of all this is so spacious and fluid, it might just as easily have been released on ECM, and ranks among my Top 3 WATT albums of all time.