Carla Bley
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White Oakland-born pianist Carla Borg (1938) married Paul Bley in 1957 and moved with him to Los Angeles. After composing Bent Eagle for George Russell's Stratusphunk (1960) and Ictus for Jimmy Giuffre's Thesis (1961), she became her husband's main composer, penning: Floater and King Korn on Footloose (1963), Ida Lupino and Syndrome on Turning Point (1964), the entire Barrage (1964), most of Closer (1965), Start on Touching (1965). She left Paul Bley for trumpeter Michael Mantler in 1965.

Mantler and Bley formed a large star-studded jazz orchestra, the Jazz Composers' Orchestra, that debuted with Communication (april 1965) and Jazz Composers' Orchestra (june 1968), obtaining immense critical success. In between those albums, Mike Mantler on trumpet, Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone, Carla Bley on piano and two bassists recorded Jazz Realities (january 1966), including Bley's Oni Puladi (the habanera Ida Lupino played in reverse).

Those collaborations would have been enough to establish her as a major figure of the decade, but she also composed the whole of Gary Burton's A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967) and most of Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra (1969), two milestones of jazz. By the end of the decade, she could vie for the title of greatest living jazz composer with Mingus and Ellington.

Her public image was quite schizophrenic, on one hand a living advertisement for the bohemian lifestyle of the hippie generation, on the other hand an austere and uncompromising modernist. Her compositional ambitions clearly collided with the aesthetic of free-jazz, although she displayed an ideological affinity with free jazz. Perhaps these contradictions were precisely what made her music so unique and powerful.

Bley topped everything she had done so far with the colossal three-LP jazz opera Escalator Over The Hill (june 1971), the result of three years of recordings, one of the greatest albums in the history of jazz music. The large orchestra was actually structured in four orchestras. The Orchestra proper (and Hotel Lobby Band) was a 19-piece unit with Carla Bley (piano), Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone), Gato Barbieri (tenor saxophone), Chris Woods (baritone saxophone), Michael Mantler and Enrico Rava (trumpets), Roswell Rudd, Sam Burtis and Jimmy Knepper (trombones), Jack Jeffers (bass trombone), Bob Carlisle and Sharon Freeman (French horns), John Buckingham (tuba), Nancy Newton (viola), Karl Berger (vibraphone), Charlie Haden (bass), Paul Motian (drums), Roger Dawson (congas), Bill Morimando (bells, celeste). The Desert Band featured Bley (organ), Don Cherry (trumpet), Souren Baronia (clarinet), Leroy Jenkins (violin), Calo Scott (cello), Sam Brown (guitar), Ron McClure (bass) and Motian (percussion). The Original Hotel Amateur Band comprised Bley (piano), Mantler (valve trombone), Motian (drums), Michael Snow (trumpet), Howard Johnson (tuba), Perry Robinson and Peggy Imig (clarinets), Nancy Newton (viola), Richard Youngstein (bass). Jack's Traveling Band consisted of Carla Bley on organ and the power-trio of John McLaughlin (guitar), Jack Bruce (bass) and Paul Motian (drums). Finally, the "silent music" was performed by Michael Mantler on prepared piano, Don Preston on synthesizer and Carla Bley on organ, celeste and calliope. The singers ranged from country star Linda Ronstadt to avantgarde vocalist Jeanne Lee. Bley's score, spanning jazz, electronic, rock and Indian music, was of Wagner-ian proportions and ambitions, combining pathos and epos in a way that had not been tried before in jazz music. Most of the pieces were brief, like a lattice of morphing ideas, except for Hotel Overture, Rawalpindi Blues and the closing And It's Again. Her intricate dissonant unstable multi-stylistic structures amounted to a refounding of jazz music.

By comparison, Tropic Appetites (february 1974) was a mini-opera for vocalists (Julie Driscoll, Karen Mantler) and jazz septet (Gato Barbieri on tenor, Michael Mantler on trumpet and trombone, Howard Johnson on clarinets, saxophones and tuba, Toni Marcus on violin and viola, Dave Holland on bass and cello, Carla Bley on piano and organ, Paul Motian on percussion), but the stylistic excursion was no less breathtaking, from the What Will Be Left Between Us and the Moon Tonight? to Indonesian Dock Sucking Supreme to Song of the Jungle Stream. The humbler setting shifted the emphasis from creative chaos and abandon to impressionistic timbral and textural exploration.

Bley proved that she could also excel in neoclassical music with the lyrical 3/4 for piano and orchestra, on Michael Mantler - Carla Bley (august 1975).

Dinner Music (september 1976) was Bley's version of slick muzak (Sing Me Softly of the Blues, A New Hymn and Song Sung Long), featuring herself, Mantler, Richard Tee (piano), Carlos Ward (alto and tenor saxophones and flute), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Bob Stewart (tuba), and a funky rhythm section of two guitars, bass and drums.

Her mood seemed to have relaxed considerably, and Musique Mecanique (november 1978) was the ultimate proof, almost a divertissment for tentet. The 23-minute three-movement Musique Mecanique and Jesus Maria and Other Spanish Strains were bizarre but not too cerebral (and frequently humurous) compositions, highlighted by the solos of tenor saxophonist Gary Windo and trombonist Roswell Rudd. The other players (besides Bley and Mantler) included Alan Braufman on reeds, John Clark on french horn, Bob Stewart on tuba, Terry Adams on piano, Steve Swallow and Charlie Haden on basses, and Eugene Chadbourne on guitar. Like all of her best works, this was both jazz, rock and classical music, while being blasphemous to them all.

During the following years Bley seemed to have lost her determination (more than her inspiration), alternating works in different fields: Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (october 1979), the "solo" album by Pink Floyd's drummer (mostly composed by her), the funk-jazz-rock fusion of Live (august 1981), the playful tentet I Hate To Sing (august 1981), with cartoonish tracks such as I Hate To Sing and Lone Arranger, the film soundtrack Mortelle Randone (december 1982). The only album that matched her former discipline was Social Studies (december 1980), highlighted by a postmodernist Reactionary Tango scored for a surreal nonet (Bley, Mantler, Ward, Valente, Swallow, tenor saxophone, euphonium, tuba, drums).

The ambient/melodic side of her art returned to the fore with the adventurous tentet music of Heavy Heart (october 1983), that relied on Bley's synthesizer and Valente's trombone, more than on the other horns (Mantler's trumpet, tuba, flute, saxophones), and on the delicate rhythm section (Kenny Kirkland's piano, Hiram Bullock's guitar, Steve Swallow's bass and two percussionists), to scupt the relaxed atmospheres of Heavy Heart and Light or Dark. Night-Glo (august 1985), credited to both Bley and Swallow (and the first one without Mantler), was lounge music for yuppies. The Bley-Swallow mellow-fusion sound was formalized by the Sextet (december 1986) with guitarist Hiram Bullock, pianist Larry Willis and two percussionists, in particular by The Girl Who Cried Champagne and Healing Power.

The duo albums with Swallow, Duets (summer 1988), mostly devoted to old material, and Go Together (march 1992), highlighted her melodic talent, but little else.

Bley had not forgotten the orchestra, though. The 18-piece Very Big Carla Bley Band (october 1990), featuring four soloists (Valente, trumpeter Lew Soloff, saxophonists Wolfgang Puschnig and Andy Sheppard), failed to resurrect the original Carla Bley spirit, despite the 15-minute United States and especially All Fall Down. The 17-minute Dreamkeeper Suite for Charlie Haden's third Liberation Music album, Dreamkeeper (april 1990), fared a bit better. Bley's 18-piece orchestra (same four soloists, main addition the violinist Alex Balanescu) fared even better in the 20-minute suite Birds of Paradise on Big Band Theory (july 1993). Also notable for big band was the 24-minute Setting Calvin's Waltz on the live Goes To Church (july 1996).

A trio with Swallow and Sheppard yielded the semi-serious Songs With Legs (may 1994), with Wrong Key Donkey.

Her truly serious compositions (the 19-minute Tigers in Training, the nine-minute End of Vienna, the 14-minute Wolfgang Tango) finally appeared on Fancy Chamber Music (december 1997), featuring Bley on piano, a string section (violin, viola, cello, bass), flute, clarinet and percussion.

The return to form continued with 4x4 (july 1999), for a double quartet of sort (Bley on piano, Larry Goldings on organ, Steve Swallow on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Lew Soloff on trumpet, Wolfgang Puschnig on alto, Andy Sheppard on tenor, Gary Valente on trombone), that contained Blues in Twelve Bars and the three-movement Les Trois Lagons.

Looking For America (october 2002), a work for big band with the same four horn soloists, was political satire with a high degree of musical sophistication, as demonstrated by the 22-minute postmodernist audio-collage National Anthem.

Bley debuted a quartet with Sheppard, Swallow and drummer Billy Drummond on The Lost Chords (october 2003). It was mostly taken up by two suites: 3 Blind Mice, that displayed her knowledge of blues and jazz tradition, and Lost Chords, that showed Bley the melodic poet in her most romantic mood.

Appearing Nightly (august 2006) features Earl Gardner, Lew Soloff, Florian Esch on trumpet, Beppe Calamosca, Gary Valente, Gigi Grata, Richard Henry on trombone, Roger Jannotta, Wolfgang Puschnig, Andy Sheppard, Christophe Panzani , Julian Arguelles on saxophones, Karen Mantler on organ, Steve Swallow on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. Its centerpiece is a four-movement fantasia inspired by lounge and dancehall jazz of the 1950s.

The Black Orchid (2005) was a sort of autobiographical concept.

Andando El Tiempo (november 2015) with Steve Swallow on bass and Andy Sheppard on saxes debuted a 29-minute three-movement suite.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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