Finding Carla Bley

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I thought, 'Wow, I'm an American composer!' It sounded so much better than being a jazz musician so I thought I'd do an American thing.
Some people store their collections in cigar boxes. Others display them in glass cases. Pianist/composer Carla Bley buries her collection in the ground behind the upstate New York home she shares with bassist Steve Swallow. It's a collection of treasures culled from exotic locales she tours. Bley collects seeds. Little bunches of lettuce, wild rashes of rosemary, and great flounces of burdock burst from her garden. "We're eating that with dinner tonight," exclaims the tall, thin woman with the wispy blond helmet, pointing to a spray of dandelion leaves.

Bley adores touring. "It's just fun. To me it's like a vacation," she says. But her latest big band album, Looking For America concentrates on the country where she lives. There's a gregarious arrangement of "The National Anthem", festive rhythms from the Mexican culture she remembers from a California childhood, and an imaginative orchestration of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm". Recorded on her own label, WATT, and distributed by ECM, the finished tapes landed on the record exec's desk the day the United States declared war on Iraq. "The timing was horrible. You have to laugh at how awful the timing was," she said. "I think ECM was a bit hesitant about releasing it, but I wasn't. It's not about politics. It's about music. People think of American music as a totally original thing. Jazz was created right here. Latin music was created right here - all in America. It's amazing that two continents could come up with totally original music."

Some inspiring words came from a professor at a college Bley visited a couple years ago. He said she wasn't really a jazz musician, but more of an American composer. She liked the sound of that. "I thought, 'Wow, I'm an American composer!' It sounded so much better than being a jazz musician so I thought I'd do an American thing." When a hint of the "Star Spangled Banner" crept into her writing one day she didn't ignore it.

"I didn't know yet how bad that was going to turn out to be," she said. "Although, of course I did! We're always thought of as big dumb people, walking around eating funny food and talking real loud. If you're in a plane with Americans they're all talking loud, and if you go to Japan, you feel like you're too tall, or you don't know how to eat, or you're not polite. Americans get used to being a drag. So, it's not that I'm bragging about being an American. I'm accepting the label."

Bley had hoped to do a big band tour of America with her new album. She told her agent three years ago to start booking a U.S. tour for the summer of 2003. But she only got two gigs - one week-long residency this month at the Iridium, her first time playing in New York with her big band, and one at the University of Minnesota. "I want to go back to Europe. Forget about America," she lamented. "Uh-oh. My album is called Looking For America. Yeah, looking for America. Where is it? It's not there for me."

In October Bley plans to tour Europe with her new quartet The Lost Chords, made up of Swallow, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and drummer Billy Drummond. Fed up with the hassles of organizing a big band, including managing everyone's schedules and replacing musicians that can't make a gig, Bley welcomed writing for a smaller group again.

"Oh, it's so funny this piece I'm working on now called "The Lost Chords", I actually lost the piece. For two weeks I couldn't find it, it just seemed so appropriate I just had to laugh," she exclaimed. "We're starting our tour in Poland. I like that because that's weird, and we'll probably eat wild boar or something. I want some wild boar. I like going to places that are unusual."

Unusual means different from the peaceful sanctuary of Bley's home in the midst of Catskill forests. An antique grand piano resides in her basement studio, on loan for the last 25 years from her benefactor Timothy Marquand. The composer Howard Hanson wrote his first symphony on it in the ‘20s, but Bley prefers to write and practice at her spinet in a bright room at the top of the house. In the last three months she's learned to read text and play music simultaneously. Brahms' 51 Piano Exercises rests against the back of her piano, hidden by gardening books, Brooklyn Botanical Garden newsletters, essays on clave theory, things like that.

Playing the piano is far from fun for Bley. She forces herself to do it every day. She even dislikes playing live. The best time she had on stage was in Cologne, Germany during a performance of Escalator Over The Hill, the opera she wrote with the late poet Paul Haines. "I only had to play one piece, 'Holiday In Risk'," she recalled. "The rest of the time I just stood up in the front and waved my arms, and said you play, now you play. [Conducting] is just like a dream, you're making music but you're not touching an instrument. Paul Haines was sitting right next to me with his glass of wine, and saying the lines, and I'd just point to him. I felt so powerful."

Her compositions, divided into neatly marked files, fill a book case behind her piano bench. A black and white, '50s photograph leans against the wall atop the bookcase. A young woman dressed in a striped cocktail dress sits at a piano. Her long blond hair falls to her waist, down the straight slope of her back. A young man plays upright bass beside her. It's Bley and Swallow, over 50 years ago, playing together then as they do now.

The scene depicts a time from Bley's early days in New York when she immersed herself into the jazz world as a cigarette girl at Birdland. She made just enough money to eat and pay her rent at her hotel in Times Square. But she got a fantastic education watching live music every night. "Instead of going to college I went to Birdland," she said. "I'd go right up near the bandstand with my tray. Luckys, Camels, Pall Malls. I'd listen to the music and if somebody tapped me on the shoulder I'd say, 'Hey, wait 'til intermission, okay?' I'd get really angry when they bothered me. It was wonderful. It was a great way to do it. Only way I could have done it."

During those early New York years, she had a gig at a coffeehouse, where she claimed to play very badly. "You don't have to be very good to be a leader - you just have to be a star," she said. "You have to have a certain quality, and you just hire guys that play really good, but if you're a sideman you have to be really good. I knew from that point on nobody was ever going to hire me, so I became a leader. I played very badly, and hired great musicians."

Since then, Bley's been commissioned by international groups and fellow jazz musicians like vibraphonist Gary Burton, and bassist Charlie Haden. She's written for solo piano, duo, trio, quartet, sextet, chamber group, as well as for her big band, and her Very Big Band. Her composing technique is sort of like collage. She plays something and if it sounds good, she plays something else. The parts get tacked together to create a full piece. The problems get smoothed out at the end, when the real style comes in.

She said writing jazz is more about feeling than just putting notes on paper. "Classical writing has more formulation theory," she explained. "You come up with an idea and you can intro - retro or whatever they do to it. Or it's a fugue and you know a voice down there comes in a little bit later. But I just play it, and if it feels good... Steve [Swallow] does the same thing. He says 'I don't write it down unless I've played it a hundred times. Does that feel right? Would I like to play that? Can I keep playing it? Does it sound good the 200th time?'"

Birds influence her music, but the winged silhouettes pasted to the window beside her piano are not for creative musings. They prevent real birds from flying into the glass and killing themselves. Aside from tweets and chirps, all kinds of sounds inspire Bley's music. "I've taken rhythms from old refrigerators, 30-year-old Land Rover trunk doors, car horns...'Fast Lane!' Car horns!" she exclaimed, recalling the fourth track of her new disc. "I do that all that time. Because hell is sitting at the piano and not knowing what comes next."

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