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Carla Bley Big Band: Appearing Nightly

John Kelman By

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It's been five years since Carla Bley last worked with a big band on the politically motivated Looking for America (Watt, 2003). In the intervening years, the composer/bandleader has focused on small ensemble work with The Lost Chords (2004), and a follow-up encounter with trumpeter Paolo Fresu on The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (2007), both on her own Watt label. Appearing Nightly has a more benign purpose than Looking for America—a warm look back at the social but sophisticated New York club scene of the 1950s, where Bley often worked as a cigarette or coat check girl, getting the opportunity to hear many of the groups and music that would ultimately influence her own work.

With strong hints of Tin Pan Alley composers, the 25-minute, four-part "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid" forms the centerpiece of an album that, while clearly looking back with fondness, remains as modern as would be expected from Bley. With a 17- piece big band shaped around a core trio of pianist Bley, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Billy Drummond—three-quarters of The Lost Chords—it possesses the same spare approach to accompaniment. But with a strong brass and saxophone section that includes longtimers Wolfgang Puschnig (alto), Andy Sheppard (tenor, and the fourth member of The Lost Chords), Lew Soloff (trumpet) and Gary Valente (trombone), alongside relative newcomer Julian Arguelles (baritone), there's plenty of solo strength to go around.

But it's Bley's clever inclusion of references to songs past that makes Appearing Nightly so enjoyable. Quoting popular songs has always been part of the mainstream tradition, as has been the use of well-known songs as a structural base, but Bley goes a step farther by integrating them in ways that feel both planned and spontaneous. "Awful Coffee" swings mightily, with Swallow's electric bass unmistakable in its altering the complexion of what could be a more conventional approach, but it's Bley's wry inclusion of snippets ranging from Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" to Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" that makes it more than just a strong solo vehicle for Arguelles, Sheppard and Puschnig.

As ever, Bley emphasizes her strength as a pianist—no virtuoso, she does know her history, with an uncanny ability to accomplish much with very little; her solo intro to "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid" is a timeless and minimalist reference to George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me.

It's the kind of album that had to be recorded live. Culled from two nights at Paris' New Morning during a summer 2006 European tour, Bley captures and relays the excitement of live performance—not just through the kind of vibrantly played arrangements and stellar soloing that rarely occur in the confines of a recording studio, but with plenty of audience applause making Appearing Nightly very much a "you are there" experience. The only thing missing is the sound of clinking glasses.

Track Listing: Greasy Gravy; Awful Coffee; Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid: 40 On/20 Off, Second Round, What Would You Like to Hear?, Last Call; Someone to Watch; I Hadn't Anyone 'Till You.

Personnel: Earl Gardner: trumpet; Lew Soloff: trumpet; Giampaolo Casati: trumpet; Florian Esch: trumpet; Beppe Calamosca: trombone; Gary Valente: trombone; Gigi Grata: trombone; Richard Henry: trombone; Roger Jannotta: soprano and alto saxophone, flute; Wolfgang Puschnig: alto saxophone, flute; Andy Sheppard: tenor saxophone; Christophe Panzani: tenor saxophone; Julian Arguelles: baritone saxophone; Carla Bley: piano, conductor; Karen Mantler: organ; Steve Swallow: bass; Billy Drummond: drums.

Title: Appearing Nightly | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: ECM Records

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