September 14, 2005
Last night I slid into Yoshi's a few minutes late and the band was called "out . With seemingly a stellar cast of musicians I was dismayed when the music began with what sounded like a hoaky, low-key bossa nova. I thought I was listening to yet a new category: Retirement Home jazz. I sat in my chagrin contemplating my next move, yet still paying attention. I noticed Steve Swallow's most unusual and grotesquely beautiful hands: long and slender palms with spread-eagled but quick nimble fingers, like the wings and talons of a small eagle. I continued listening as he softly introduced the next tune with those fluttering wing-hands. Hmm, interesting bottom vamp, I thought.
Proceding on to a Monkish-sounding tune I was next struck at how Andy Sheppard managed to sound like Stan Getz, while maintaining a totally original style and unique phrasing. He evenimpossiblyeffortlessly managed what sounded like double stops on his horn. "This may not be so bad after all , I reflected.
When Carla Bley rose to introduce the next piece, her "Valse Sinistre , I was struck by her wraithlike appearance. She has a slight, bone-thin frame atop which sits a perfectly straight mop of mid-neck length platinum blond straw hair. She looks like a Beardsley conception of an uptown beatnik scarecrow come to life. She is quite pretty, and, attired in smart-casual black like the others, has a hip and formidable presentation. This piece is a very swinging, but weird waltz, one that is transporting me. I suddenly catch a pervasive aroma of fresh Darjeeling tea, but strangely feel like a knight in Tunisia. Oh my, somethin's goin' on and I don' know what it is...wait, yes I do! It's Bley's chords, they're otherworldy and highly evocative. She plays the most cosmic arpeggios I've ever heard. Who is this creature? Somehow the band is swinging hard, but the flame is turned down to a one. This is one fine low, slow burn. There is plenty of space in this music. Both the bass and drums are used more as punctuation than as motif. Any of them could roll a smoke between their notes. They are all quintessentially relaxed. There are times when Swallow plays his bass as if he were tapping upward on the bottom of a bowl·or a chekere. Billy Drummoind is like a pair of ears attached to sticks; he often plays orthogonally on the edges of his cymbals, getting a sweet, eerie, soft, beautiful sound that interweaves magically with the ensemble.
The next tune is some kind of an avant-fatback, soft, but with chitlins askew like they was hidin' under gravy, but still kickin' the time. (Now I am fanatic about this bandyou just naturally like these unpretentious peoplebut still I wonder what planet are they from? They are like nothing I've ever heard.) This is followed by an impressionist version of "Three Blind Mice . During the soprano solo, not only does Sheppard beautifully and artfully execute flowing sheets of sound, he also masterfully employs circular breathing to reach the solo's climax: a continous flow of sound for over two minutes!
The setting is drawing to a conclusion and I am feeling the presence of Thelonious Monk's quartet in the room. And wouldn't you know it, Ms. Bley (afterwards) said she must have picked up my thought, because the finale was an incredibly unique arrangement of Thelonious's "Misterioso , alternating rhythmic structure on the up and the down. After the set, another fan remarked exactly what I had written earlier in my notebook, "This was not a set, it was a concert . This rich, spacious, and incredibly textured music performed by consummate musicians is truly what music can and should be about. I am grateful to have been present.
Personnel: Carla Bley: piano and leader; Andy Sheppard: tenor and soprano sax; Steve Swallow: electric bass; Billy Drummond: drums