Carla Bley: Shoe Leather, Mystery & Moxie

Ian Patterson By

Sign in to view read count
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."
About Carla Bley
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.