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Carla Bley & Jack DeJohnette: ECM Trios

Mark Sullivan By

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Two different approaches to the trio, led by veteran ECM bandleaders. Big band composer/pianist Carla Bley continues her recent run of chamber ensemble recordings, reconvening her trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow, most recently heard on Trios (ECM, 2013). The grouping gives much more focus on her piano playing than her large group projects, where she was composer first, accompanist (and soloist) second. Drummer/composer Jack DeJohnette introduces a new trio with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and electric bassist Matthew Garrison. This sounds like more of a cooperative project, with some tracks credited collectively (plus some interesting covers).

Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow
Andando el Tiempo
ECM Records
2016

Carla Bley may not be one of the first jazz composers who come to mind—but she should be. In addition to composing the epic Escalator Over The Hill—one of the most powerful (and eclectic) large-scale pieces in the history of jazz—she has written a number of tunes that have entered the standard repertoire. So it would have been logical to record a retrospective program as she approaches her 80th birthday. She chose an all-new program instead, having revisited earlier music on the previous trio album. While she once said that she was "one per cent player and ninety-nine percent composer," this group requires her to stretch as a pianist. She is certainly not a virtuoso, but her thoughtful playing shows her as a distinctive stylist, going beyond what the late Gil Evans described as "arranger's piano."

The centerpiece is the three-part title composition, which represent stages of recovery from addiction (written as Bley watched a friend go through the process). "Sin Fin" opens the album, its theme stated by saxophonist Andy Sheppard. When bassist Steve Swallow enters he restates the theme in the bass's high register, taking a guitar-like role. As one of the early jazz adopters of the electric bass guitar, he has long since developed an individual voice on the instrument, and throughout the program he moves easily between traditional bass playing and a solo voice. On "Saints Alive!" (an expression used by old ladies when exchanging especially juicy gossip) his bass is the lead instrument, playing the head at the beginning of the piece.

The album closes with "Naked Bridges/Diving Brides," a pair of waltzes inspired by a poem by longtime friend and librettist Paul Haines, and intended as a wedding present to Andy Sheppard and his new bride, Sara. As elsewhere on the album Sheppard provides lyrical horn lines, playing for the song without extraneous display. Bley acknowledges Felix Mendelssohn in her composer's notes—the piece includes a creative reharmonization of Mendelssohn's famous "Wedding March." A charming ending to a beautiful album, an intimate conversation between three longtime collaborators.

Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison
In Movement
ECM Records
2016

As a young drummer sitting in with John Coltrane's group, Jack DeJohnette played with the fathers of both Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison. They have that legacy to build on, but also long histories together, with DeJohnette having served as something of a second father to Matthew and mentoring Ravi as well: they first performed as a trio in 1992. At age fifty Coltrane moved past the Young Lion tag long ago, having worked extensively as both a sideman and a leader. Garrison is the son of Jimmy Garrison, the bassist of the classic Coltrane quartet. He has worked with Herbie Hancock and John Scofield, and has been particularly active in contemporary electric fusion projects (e.g. John McLaughlin, Gary Husband and Alex Machacek). His five-string electric bass guitar playing and electronics add a distinctly contemporary sound to the mix.

It's appropriate that the set opens with John Coltrane's "Alabama," the cover with the most shared history. It's also the most straight-ahead of the covers, although that does not stop Garrison from bringing some electronics into the closing. "Blue In Green" is more abstract, a gentle treatment with DeJohnette on piano. The cover of Earth, Wind and Fire's 1977 hit "Serpentine Fire" has a nice funky groove, although the tune is mainly hinted at rather than stated directly.

But the two collectively composed tracks really show the band stretching out. The title tune begins with Garrison playing guitar-like arpeggios, then an electronic pulse comes in to undergird the explorations that follow, Coltrane leading the way on a sinuous soprano saxophone. DeJohnette is credited with electronic percussion, so either he or Garrison could be responsible for the ostinato. "Two Jimmys" (a nod to both Jimmy Garrison and Jimi Hendrix) features a steady groove and Middle Eastern-sounding electronics, with Coltrane on tenor saxophone this time. This is clearly a group with the potential to go in many directions. Hopefully they will continue to explore.

Tracks and Personnel

Andando el Tiempo

Tracks: Sin Fin; Potación De Guaya; Camino Al Volver; Saints Alive!; Naked Bridges / Diving Brides.

Personnel: Carla Bley: piano; Andy Sheppard: tenor/soprano saxophones; Steve Swallow: bass.

In Movement

Tracks: Alabama; In Movement; Two Jimmys; Blue In Green; Serpentine Fire; Lydia; Rashied; Soulful Ballad.

Personnel: Jack DeJohnette: drums, piano, electronic percussion; Ravi Coltrane: tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones; Matthew Garrison: electric bass, electronics.

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