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Carla Bley: Shoe Leather, Mystery & Moxie

Ian Patterson By

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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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