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Remembering Carla Bley: Jazz Innovator Extraordinaire

Remembering Carla Bley: Jazz Innovator Extraordinaire

Courtesy Joze Pozrl


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Genius is a heavy word to bandy about but it's people doing things that nobody has done before and Carla's one of those people. Historically she's been one of the innovators.
—Andy Sheppard
Carla Bley, composer, arranger, free-jazz pioneer, band leader, pianist and independent, whose compositions became jazz standards, has died at the age of 87. She had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2018.

Bley's most famous recording was her sprawling, genre-elusive triple album Escalator Over the Hill (JCOA Records, 1971). On the back of this album, in 1972, Bley won a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition.

In a sixty-year career her music covered a wide arc, from large-scale avant-garde jazz to music of chamber intimacy. She wrote for Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, arranged for Hal Willner and recorded with musicians as diverse as Jack Bruce, Bill Laswell, Richard Thompson and Robert Wyatt.

An influential leader and organizer, Bley co-founded the Jazz Composer's Orchestra with Michael Mantler, championed independent record labels and arranged and conducted in Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. As a leader she recorded over thirty albums.

Bley was a refined pianist who appreciated space and beauty. She was often dismissive of her playing, telling All About Jazz in 2016, "I'm not an improviser, basically, because I'm not quick enough. I'm a composer because I'm so slow... My writing is just like playing very slowly and my playing is like writing... "

Her writing was unique. It is striking just how many jazz luminaries have been seduced by Bley's compositions. A partial list of those who have covered her tunes includes Gary Burton, Arturo O'Farrill, John Scofield, Cindy Blackman Santana, John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius, Ken Vandermark, George Russell, Iro Haarla and Hakon Kornstad.

For her album Meltframe (Firehouse 12 Records, 2015), guitarist Mary Halvorson visited Bley's "Ida Lupino," a gorgeous tune that had already gained standard status after recordings by Paul Bley, Charlie Haden and Michel Portal.

"Carla Bley was one-of-kind, a creative and powerful trailblazer and free thinker, both as a pianist and composer," Halvorson told All About Jazz, responding to Bley's passing. "Her work is hugely influential on my own, especially as a female composer and bandleader. I remember first discovering her through her classic tune "Ida Lupino" as a teenager—still one of my favorite compositions today—and branching out from there to discover an entire world: explosive, beautiful, uncompromising."

Of her writing Bley told All About Jazz: "At its best it's a mystery, at its worst its shoe leather. The mystery part doesn't come very often. Most of it is just the hard work part."

Born Lovella May Borg on May 11, 1936, to Swedish parents in Oakland, California, Bley was introduced to music by her father, a pianist and church choirmaster. The quiet life, however, was not for Bley, who made a beeline to New York at the age of seventeen, where she worked as a cigarette girl at Birdland, just to be close to jazz.

In 1957, Carla married pianist Paul Bley, who was instrumental in pushing her to write. Although they divorced ten years later, Carla kept the surname professionally. In 1965 she and future husband Michael Mantler—with whom she had a daughter, Karen—formed the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, which had grown out of Bill Dixon's Jazz Composer's Guild.

In the influential JCO Bley collaborated with free-jazz musicians such as Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor.

Bley gave full flight to her imagination in the JCO, most notably on the genre-elusive Escalator Over the Hill a ninety- minute work for fifty or so musicians—misleadingly deemed a jazz opera in some quarters—recorded between 1968 and 1971.

A brilliant, bonkers stew of jazz, rock, beat poetry, drone and Kurt Weill-esque cabaret, the dizzying cast included poet/jazz lyricist Paul Haines, Cream's Jack Bruce, Sheila Jordan, Don Preston, Linda Ronstadt, Don Cherry, Paul Motian, Gato Barbieri, Enrico Rava and John McLaughlin, amongst others.

Almost inevitably its experimentalism sounds a little of its time, but had it been penned by Frank Zappa it would likely be more widely hailed as a stone cold classic. Over half a century later its status is assured as one of the essential avant-garde jazz albums of the post-bop era.

Another high point in Bley's career was her music for Gary Burton's ten-piece band that rendered A Genuine Tong Funeral (RCA, 1968). Jazz critic Nat Hentoff, for one, considered Bley's writing for large ensembles to be on a par with that of Charles Mingus.

In 1969, Bley joined Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra as arranger, pianist and occasional composer. The LMO, formed to protest America's involvement in Vietnam/Indochina, would reconvene to record and tour sporadically over the next forty-five years, spurred on, always in the spirit of protest, by America's involvement in Cuba, Latin America and Iraq. "It was Charlie who opened our eyes to the political realities of the time," Bley recalled.

In reviewing LMO's eponymous debut, releases in 1970 on Impulse!, Rolling Stone's music critic Lester Bangs praised Bley's "miracle of dynamics." Her arrangements and compositions for LMO also bagged her numerous Downbeat awards.

Between 1971 and 2009 Bley released two dozen records on her independent label WATT and forged a deep musical relationship with her partner in life, Steve Swallow. In the early 1990s, Bley formed a trio with Swallow and English saxophonist Andy Sheppard. The trio lasted nearly 25 years and recorded three albums for ECM, with Life Goes On (2020) representing Bley's swansong.

"Genius is a heavy word to bandy about but it's people doing things that nobody has done before and Carla's one of those people," Sheppard told All About Jazz in 2015. "Historically she's been one of the innovators. Her melodies are fantastic, as are her harmonies and concepts."

Bley's music, serious, beautiful, deeply layered and above all emotional, was also full of wit. It was not before time, when, in 2015, she received the NEA Jazz Masters award.

Carla Bley (May 11, 1936-October 17, 2023) is survived by her daughter Karen and Steve Swallow.

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