Carla Bley: Shoe Leather, Mystery & Moxie

Ian Patterson By

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Is a comfort zone a bad thing to fall into? I think players play better when they’re in a comfort zone but I think maybe writers write better when they’re uncomfortable
—Carla Bley
With the passing of time. That's roughly how the title of Carla Bley's second trio album for ECM translates. Bley turned eighty a few months before the release of Andando el Tiempo but the passing years, if anything, have sharpened her composer's claws and whetted her playing appetite, judging by the music on this, her third collaboration with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard following the live album Songs With Legs (Watt, 1994) and Trios (ECM, 2013).

While most octogenarians are usually content to take the foot off the gas, Bley seems to be thriving on a creative energy that promises several new releases in the year ahead with ensembles both large and small. After nearly sixty years of composing some of the most strikingly original music in jazz, Bley still finds creating music a process that's both strangely mundane—like most jobs—and just occasionally inspired.

It's not something, however, that she over-analyses. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm doing. When I'm writing music that's not something that thought would help," she states simply.

"At its best it's a mystery, at its worst its shoe leather," says Bley, dissecting the mechanics of her art form. "The mystery part doesn't come very often. Most of it is just the hard work part. The mystery part is when you play something that's really great and you have no idea why. Or you write something down that's really great and you don't deserve it—it's just music from heaven or something. You can't get it, you can only be given it."

Shoe leather, Bley explains, is that time when a soloist is lost for ideas and plays "any old thing just to get through to the moment when he or she has an idea." Noodling might be another term for it, not something that most people would associate with the pianist, whose spare style is the very essence of the art of 'less is more.'

When Bley talks of the process involved in making music it's sometimes unclear whether she refers to composition or improvisation. The lines between the two, as with the music on the elegant, lyrical Andando el Tiempo are mostly blurred, particularly on the thirty-minute suite that gives the recording its title. "My writing is just like playing very slowly and my playing is like writing," Bley explains.

Whether or not the form and the freedom reveal themselves clearly to the listener, there is, Bley asserts, plenty of the latter, in all her music. "There's always room for improvisation. I don't believe I've ever written a piece that didn't have improvisation. The through-composed part never lasts for more than a minute at a time. The soloist plays whatever he or she wants to."

Swallow, Bley's life partner, and Sheppard explore this freedom with typically lyrical finesse on Andando el Tiempo. They've played together with Bley as a trio for twenty years now, though the respective collaborations go even further back. The blend of the three voices on Bley's latest compositions creates wonderfully emotive colors through melodic and rhythmic arcs that move subtly from introspective and a little sad, gradually reaching more pronounced rhythmic and more positive melodic terrain.

The trio has grown musically over the years, developing an ever-deeper sense of musical empathy and, as Bley explains, stretching itself to the outer limits. "I push Steve Swallow way beyond his abilities and I push Andy Sheppard way beyond his range, even. They're just victims now," jokes Bley.

Bley acknowledges that playing with such virtuosi as Swallow and Sheppard has forced her to up her game as an instrumentalist, yet she's still brutally honest as regards her own limitations, as she sees them. "I don't have the abilities of the guys in the band. I just have to peck out something that I think will sound good next to what I wrote. I want to play wonderful things but in order to do that I would need a lot more chops and I would need a lot more time. I'd have to play at a very, very slow tempo," she says, drawing out the words for emphasis.

"On a fast tune I play one note and then I have no idea what to play after that and by the time the next note comes to me the piece is already half-way finished. So, I'm not an improviser, basically, because I'm not quick enough. I'm a composer because I'm so slow."

Speed, like time, is a relative concept, but like the proverbial tortoise, Bley has won the race. Admiration for her writing is universal, with her compositions covered by a who's who of modern jazz practitioners from the late 1950s until, most recently Mary Halvorson's wonderful reimaging of Bley's "Ida Lupino" on Meltframe (Firehouse 12 Records, 2015)—a veritable standard that's also been recorded by Paul Bley, Charlie Haden and Michel Portal, amongst others.

Writing in JazzTimes in late 2000, the eminent jazz ambassador and political commentator Nat Hentoff, opined: ..."I have never ceased to be surprised at the uncategorizable wit and free spirit of Carla Bley." So too, artists as diverse as Barry Altschul, Steve Kuhn, John Scofield, The Nels Cline Singers, John McLaughlin, Cindy Blackman, former Frank Zappa keyboardist Don Preston, Gary Burton, Jaco Pastorius, Hakon Kornstad, Eberhard Weber, Arturo O'Farrill, Ken Vandermark, Jan Garbarek, George Russell, Attila Zoller, Tony Williams and Phil Woods, to name but a distinguished handful, who have all mined Bley's compositions.

It would be a surprise if Bley's subtly bewitching works on Andando El Tiempo don't provide grist to the mill for even more composers in the years to come.

Although Bley has mainly been leading small ensembles in recent years, albums such as the wildly expansive Escalator Over the Hill (Watt, 1971), and Fleur Carnivore (Watt, 1989) remain among the most significant large ensemble jazz recordings of the past fifty years. For Nat Hentoff, Bley's music for big-band belongs in a category alongside that of Charles Mingus for originality.

For Bley, there seems to be little difference conceptually at least, between writing for a small ensemble and a big-band, though in a trio the demands place on her are increased. "I get all the stuff that nobody else can handle and sometimes that's really hard. It's because I don't have a big band to do it. If Andy and Steve are busy I have to play. I push myself," Bley explains. "In a way I'm playing all the background horns, then I'm playing the rhythm section part and I'm playing little intros and interludes. I'm sort of like the band."

Bley's multiple roles are evident throughout Andando El Tiempo, particularly on the title track, a three-part suite weighing in at almost thirty minutes. Thematically, the suite charts the course and effects of addiction, from the crutch of medicines that relieve pain and anxiety becoming in itself an insufferable condition ("Sin Fin") to the sorrow felt by all affected ("Potacion de Guaya") and, eventually, the road to recovery ("Camino al Volver").

If the tone seems like a departure from the spirited attack and sardonic wit of much of Bley's oeuvre—think Dinner Music (Watt, 1977), I Hate to Sing (Watt/ECM, 1984), Fancy Chamber Music (Watt, 1998), Looking for America (Watt, 2003) etc—then that's because it is, as Bley recognizes, "the most serious thing I've written."

Serious undoubtedly, though Bley's writing, even when confronting heavy themes, is still achingly lyrical, and perfectly suited to the searching, melodic sensibilities of Swallow and Sheppard. Yet so haunting are Bley's melodic templates that the soloists don't have to stray too far or strive too hard for effect. In a 2015 interview with All About Jazz, Sheppard remarked: "Sometimes it's hard to get something better out in your solo than the tune itself"—a statement that encapsulates the somewhat blurred lines between form and freedom on Andando El Tiempo.

"Andy plays the feeling of the song," says Bley. "He has that ability. He's not the kind of player who breaks into something he's been working on privately in his own studio following one of my melodies. I think his solos are better than the tunes I write."

The same could be said for Swallow, whose tonal subtleties and interplay with Bley and Sheppard contribute much to the success of Andando El Tiempo. The three know each other very well, their intuitive weaving dispelling any notion that a comfort zone blunts the creative edge. "Is a comfort zone a bad thing to fall into?" poses Bley rhetorically. "I think players play better when they're in a comfort zone but I think maybe writers write better when they're uncomfortable."

In addressing themes of addiction, pain and recovery on the suite "Andando El Tiempo" Bley certainly put herself outside her comfort zone as far as her writing goes. Indeed, much about the recording signals a bold step into unchartered territories for Bley.

The pianist/composer continues to surprise, not just musically, but also with her openness to new experiences in the studio. After four decades pulling just about all the strings on her recordings, Bley has, for her two most recent releases, put herself in the hands of ECM's Manfred Eicher. On a number of levels it was something of a leap into the unknown for Bley to do things the ECM way. "I have never had a producer," she says.

"Manfred was probably tentative coming into it, wondering how he could possibly—we'd know each other for fifty years—say to me, 'I don't like that. Do that tune again.' I came thinking 'I'm going to let him do whatever he wants to do because nobody ever told me what to do and I want to find out what it's like to be told what to do.' So I came with all this expansiveness and he came tentatively, but no-one I think would ever know that. We just meshed totally perfectly."

The experience working with Eicher has, Bley acknowledges, been something of a revelation in other ways. "One of the things Manfred brought to me was a certain amount of direction. He told me things like, 'Don't worry about the little mistakes. Don't interrupt the flow. Don't bother with that note you want to correct. No-one will notice that note, and besides, it's real; there are mistakes in life, you know, and people like to hear your little mistakes.' I've learned a lot about that," Bley recognizes. "I now know it's not an advantage [the perfect take] and I'm going to try hard to make as many mistakes as I can," she laughs.

There was another notable first for Bley, one that she wasn't expecting, when Eicher asked her to write the liner notes. "I didn't want to," Bley admits, but I'm glad I did because it showed me that I could describe what was going on during those three pieces, and a lot was going on. They're about addiction and recovery and I could mention that to the listener. I don't know if I would ever do it again but I'm glad I did it."

Bley's notes throw light on the album's closing piece, "Naked Bridges/Diving Brides," which was commissioned by Serious as part of the EGF London Jazz Festival's twenty first birthday celebrations in 2013. The quietly episodic, ten- minute composition was written "with a little help from Felix Mendelssohn" as a wedding gift for Sheppard and his new bride, Sara.

The title of the tune references the poem "Peking Widow," by Paul Haines, the poet and librettist with whom Bley collaborated on the gargantuan experiment of Escalator Over the Hill—an almost unheard of triple LP back in 1971—and then again on Tropic Appetites three years later. "I never understood a word Paul Haines ever wrote and that's what drew me to it," Bley explains. "It's really a mystery, so that's why I used him."

Bley recognizes that she was perhaps more drawn to Haines' personality than his words. "I met him in the late 1960s in New York City and we would both go and listen to Charles Mingus; not together, he would go and sit in one part of the nightclub and I would be sitting next to Paul Bley in a another part of the nightclub and we just met one time in the lobby. He said 'I see you here every night.' I said 'I see you here every night.' We had a lot of that going on."

No matter how unfathomable Bley found Haines' poetry, his writing found its way, one way or another, into her compositions. "He would send me a lyric from India where he was living at the time that fit perfectly into a piece I had been writing in my own music room in New York City. It just clicked so totally and I have never wondered why."

In the CD booklet that accompanies Andando El Tiempo Haine's poetry is reproduced in all its mysterious glory:

From naked bridges
Diving brides relax
In freefall fistfuls
Of sparkling albumen

"It's Steve Swallow who is the poets' best fan," Bley confides. "He has at least ten poets he adores. He takes a book of poetry into the bathroom with him. This is part of his daily life. As for me, I wouldn't have the patience, I don't think, to figure out what each word meant. I certainly didn't with Paul Haines, and yet the idea of sparsity seems to mesh with my own way of playing and writing."

Though the trio with Swallow and Sheppard is Bley's main vehicle these days she's been busy with larger ensembles as well. At the end of May, Bley performed "La Leçon Française" in Hamburg with the NDR German Radio Bigband. This oratorio for big-band and boys' choir was premiered at the Moers Festival in 2012. On that occasion Bley only had one rehearsal before launching into the music live.

There were no such time constrictions this time. "There was an absurd amount of rehearsal time," says Bley. "It was like five or six days and we knew the music very well by the time we played it live for the two concerts at the end. That was the first time in my life I've had more than one rehearsal for a gig."

After several years without playing the music Bley found herself, by her own admission, a little ring-rusty. "The musicians didn't need five or six rehearsals. The NDR Bigband is really experienced and professional. They probably could have done it with one rehearsal. I was the one who benefited from all those rehearsals," she admits.

"In the first couple of rehearsals I would get everything all mixed up and forget what the tempi were between tunes and have to count to myself while all the band sat there and waited, or I had to find a note that sounded better than the note that was being played and tell the musicians it was supposed to be a G sharp. I had to do all of that stuff and I couldn't have done that in a live concert."

Bley, nevertheless, clearly relished the challenge of leading one of Europe's greatest big-bands. "I had to be the conductor as well as the composer and pianist and the writer of the words. I was wearing all of these hats," says Bley. "It was fun."

Currently, Bley is editing the Hamburg performances of La Leçon Française for future release on ECM. "It's very exciting," enthuses Bley. "We also ended up recording all the studio stuff while we were rehearsing in case it was needed later. I think I'm going to do the Manfred thing and just use the live recordings with all the mistakes in them."

La Lecon Francaise is one of several Bley releases due in the next year or so. Also on the cards— possibly before the end of 2016—is a new album from the Liberation Music Orchestra, the late Charlie Haden's occasional vehicle—over a period of forty five years—for raising a clenched fist of solidarity with peoples suffering oppression, whether in Vietnam, Cuba, Latin America or Iraq.

"We have two tunes that were taped from Charlie's last concert with the LMO," explains Bley. "The rest of it is three tunes that I arranged for the band of my own music and one new piece that I wrote for Charlie on his passing. It's about Charlie and with Charlie. It's like the eulogy."

There have already been numerous tributes to Haden since his death in 2014, but it will be fascinating to hear the Liberation Orchestra's response. According to Bley, the new LMO album is something a little bit special. "The band never played better than it did at these recordings. I think everybody was saying goodbye in a soloistic way. They were wanting to make the music perfect and they rehearsed their asses off."

Clearly, the sessions during the recording of the forthcoming LMO album were a labor of love. "We played those tunes until they were really great and each one is as inspired as the next," states Bley. "There was nothing but pure inspiration going on and the players were playing with great love and dedication. It's a miracle album."

Bley knew Haden even before the 1969 recording of the LBO's first album—Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse! 1970)—, for which she composed, arranged and played piano. "I've known Charlie since he was sixteen," says Bley, "when he came from the Ozarks [the mountainous region of southern Missouri and beyond] to LA to become a jazz musician."

The two hit it off from the get-go. "We shared a lot of things," recalls Bley. "I also was a school drop-out like he was but he was even more educated than me. He went to the Westlake School of Music and he knew how to read. So did I, because my father had taught me years ago when I was a child. But we were not products of a music factory whatsoever. We liked the same composers, we liked the same players, we liked the same chords, notes, places, pieces of furniture, colors and friends."

Bley admits that at the time of the first LMO album neither she nor many of the other musicians were as politicized as Haden. "I was just into the music then," Bley recalls. "I think a lot of the musicians were. It was Charlie who opened our eyes to the political realities of the time."

Musically, Haden also impacted Bley significantly. "He always loved this one chord I would play, so I put in everything to please him. When he died I sat down at the piano and played the chord. Then I moved a finger a little ways up and it was like, 'Ah, that sounds interesting.' From there I wrote a song. It's on the new album."

This will be the first album from the LMO since Not in Our Name (Verve, 2005), a rallying cry against the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The title was inspired by the anti-war Not in Our Name posters and stickers that Haden encountered throughout Europe in 2003. Since that album and tour the LMO has played sporadically. There are a couple of gigs confirmed for September, at the Chicago Jazz Festival, and in November, at the EFG London jazz Festival, but beyond that, it remains unclear whether the LMO can continue in the long-term.

"It's very expensive taking thirteen musicians on the road," says Bley. "That's thirteen plane tickets and hotel rooms; you can't work with a big-band anymore. If it was subsidized perhaps we could continue but I don't think we can continue in today's market place. Europe has hardly any money right now for that kind of thing."

The new LMO album, reveals Bley, is called Time-Life -a poignant title if ever there was. Bley had been visiting a terminally ill friend in hospital near New York's iconic Time—Life building. "From his window all you could see was the Time-Life building sign blinking—Time...Life, Time...Life, Time...Life...."

Time waits for no-one, so it was timely, to say the least, when in 2015 Bley received the recognition her career deserves, with the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship award—the highest award America can bestow on jazz artists. "It wouldn't have been satisfying at an earlier age," says Bley. "I'm glad they waited. I've been around for a long time and I'm going to accept it happily and just be lifted up a notch, probably for the rest of my days in my own estimation."

Maybe after all these years it's taken such official recognition to convince Bley of the high esteem in which she is held, both within and beyond the borders of the USA. "I think now I'm a little better than I used to think I was," she says.

That said, there's no resting on any laurels for the woman who moved to New York as a teenager in the 1950s and took a job as a cigarette girl at Birdland to hear the greatest jazz musicians of the day. Fast forward half a century and now Bley herself is widely regarded as one of the modern greats, a musician and composer who has made her mark and who continues to inspire. For Bley, the hard work and the mystery are still working their spell. "I have some ideas for the future. I'm going to keep working."

Remarkably, as Bley enters her ninth decade, she doesn't seem to taking her foot off the gas. "I'm probably speeding up," she says. "I really think that at this point I better start racing. I want to become a lot better before I can't become better. What if my brain went?" she asks rhetorically.

"That would be a good thing, actually," she adds as an afterthought. "No more thinking. Never mind."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Caterina di Perri

The author would like to thank Steve Swallow for patiently oiling the wheels. Special thanks to Julie Greenwood who really saved the day.

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