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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.

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