Composer / pianist Carla Bley, a Californian who has traveled all over the world playing her music, has devoted her latest album to Looking for America,
an enormous undertaking by any measure. As a reviewer, my quest is far less ambitious; I am looking only for exciting big-band jazz that swings. I hope she had better luck than I.
That’s not meant to imply that Bley’s venture doesn’t have its delightful moments; she is, after all, a talented writer of cutting-edge post-bop jazz who leads an ensemble of world-class musicians including renowned soloists Lew Soloff, Wolfgang Puschnig, Andy Sheppard and Gary Valente and a hard-working rhythm section expertly governed by bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Billy Drummond. It’s hard to keep that kind of prowess under wraps. And Bley does have some interesting ideas to impart, especially during the second half of the album (“Fast Lane,” “Los Cocineros,” “Tijuana Traffic”).
After opening with a brief fanfare (“Grand Mother”), the leader consigns the next twenty-one minutes-plus to a five-part treatise on “The National Anthem.” Swallow’s bass introduces the funky shuffle, “OG Can UC?,” whose down-home solos are by alto saxophonist Puschnig, trumpeter Soloff and Bley. Drummond is a powerhouse on the polyrhythmic “Flags,” with trombonist Valente also delivering an effective statement, after which Swallow and Puschnig spruce up another funky theme, “Whose Broad Stripes?” Tenor saxophonist Sheppard is suitably soulful on the largely easygoing “Anthem,” wherein Bley loses her compass toward the end and wanders north of the border for a crisp taste of “O Canada” before coming back home to “Keep It Spangled.”
Robert Routch’s French horn garnishes a second concise set piece, “Step Mother,” which precedes the well-named “Fast Lane” (preamble by a cappella saxophones, bracing solos by Sheppard, Soloff and Drummond) and gently swinging “Los Cocineros,” enhanced by Karen Mantler at the Hammond and encompassing meaty comments by Sheppard, Valente, baritone Gary Smulyan and percussionist Don Alias. The evocative “Tijuana Traffic” (complete with siren, courtesy of Danilo Zeni) is huddled between the last of Bley’s terse sketches, “Your Mother” and “God Mother.” Valente’s throaty trombone is the first vehicle to brave the “Traffic,” followed closely by Soloff’s burnished trumpet.
Almost everyone lends a hand on the offbeat finale, “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” which has been so thoroughly renovated by Bley that even McDonald himself wouldn’t recognize it. Valente hammers the first nail, followed by Puschnig, Soloff (on muted wah-wah trumpet), Sheppard, Bley, Drummond, Swallow, Mantler, flutist Lawrence Feldman and Smulyan. Bley’s interlude is cleverly underscored by passing references to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Three Blind Mice,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Once the farm has been overhauled, a brass chorale and quick melodic allusion give Old McDonald something to hang his hat on.
While her search for America is sometimes errant and not entirely successful, Bley has uncovered and shrewdly recast a number of interesting landmarks along the way.
Personnel: Carla Bley: composer, arranger, conductor, piano; Earl Gardner: trumpet; Lew Soloff: trumpet; Byron Stripling: trumpet; Giampaolo Casati,; trumpet; Lawrence Feldman: alto and soprano sax, flute; Wolfgang Puschnig: alto sax, flute; Andy Sheppard: tenor sax; Craig Handy: tenor sax; Gary Smulyan: baritone sax; Jim Pugh: trombone; Gary Valente: trombone; Dave Bargeron: trombone; David Taylor: bass trombone; Robert Routch: French horn (3, 5, 7); Karen Mantler; organ, glockenspiel; Steve Swallow: bass; Billy Drummond: drums; Don Alias: percussion; Danilo Zeni: siren (7).