Songs With Legs: Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard At Birdland, NYC
New York City, New York
April 10, 2008
The Lost Chords is the name of the quartet led by pianist Carla Bley with her partner, bassist Steve Swallow, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and drummer Billy Drummond. The group has recorded The Lost Chords (Watt, 2004) and, with the addition of Italian trumpeter Paoloa Fresu, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (Watt, 2007). As a trio they've been performing since 1993 and recorded a live album entitled Songs With Legs (Watt, 1994)
Since that recorded music was engaging and witty while being at once light and deep, it was with extreme interest that I attended the Thursday night show, which was part of a five-night stand at Birdland.
Bley is immediately physically recognizable with her shock of blunt-cut blond hair topping a pencil-thin body. Her music is also readily recognizable with many tunes that have become modern jazz standards because of their combination of fine construction, accessibility and beauty. The other side of her music involves musical and literary wit as it constantly alludes to other music and almost anything else that piques her interest, notably puns. Superficially, the music might seem tongue-in-cheek, but underneath she wields a steely control.
On this night, the house sound was very dry and sparse, which matched the feeling of caution and care when Bley and Swallow came onto the stage. They have played together for some thirty years and, since they are both around seventy years old, a mix of wisdom and frailty filled the air.
The music was announced as new pieces by Bley (with one exception), but even so, the extent to which the music was being read, and with the employment of very careful cues, was a bit surprising. However, from the first notes of the opening work, National Anthem, a five-part suite, the peculiar musical world of Carla Bley took over the room on cat's feet.
Her writing permits direct and ready access to her world because it is built from familiar materials, and yet quirky curve balls are constantly being thrown, keeping the listener off balance. The music seems balanced on a knife edge, and part of the attraction is the resulting tension, which spices the music's deceptive, surface simplicity.
Swallow actually plays three roles in the trio: providing harmonic support, supplying rhythmic propulsion and serving as a soloist. Like a hummingbird, he flitted constantly among them, listening and reacting to what Bley was doing on the piano. Playing an acoustic-electric bass, his sound was warm and mellow yet full, with none of the flaccid thump that pure electric basses can emit.
Sheppard assumed the most "normal" role in the group as he presented the main musical ideas, soloing on them before passing them on, although he occasionally added harmonic support and comments when Bley or Swallow were playing. His sound on tenor and soprano saxophone matched the music's personality, but then again, who influenced what in which way was open for discussion, since Sheppard's wit matched Bley's.
The closing tune was Bley's version of Thelonious Monk's angular blues "Mysterioso," which appeared on Songs With Legs and aptly sums up her aesthetic. Like Bley, Monk works with simple materials, juxtaposing, twisting and stretching them into new configurations. Thus, we heard music that was doubly twisted, and it was delightful.
The music of Bley, Swallow and Sheppard might be considered an acquired taste, but once tasted, there is much more than first meets the ear.