Tribute to Carla Bley: Mandala Octet and Mandala Orchestra

Harry S. Pariser By

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Mandala Octet and Mandala Orchestra
San Francisco, CA
June 5, 2015

Steve McQuarry had an epiphany last December. While on the phone with Karen Mantler, daughter of eminent avant-garde jazz composer Carla Bley, McQuarry realized that he would like to play some of her tunes onstage, and Mantler offered to send him the charts. A package containing the charts duly arrived, and McQuarry went about assembling a big band. The results were premiered onstage at SFJAZZ, where a potpourri of local talent contributed their time and talents to highlight the rarely-heard compositions.

Bley, whose father was a church organist and who grew up listening to Norwegian church hymns, first married composer Paul Bley, who has often played her compositions, and then left him for composer Michael Mantler, with whom she both started the Jazz Composer's Orchestra and founded the WATT label. Bley then took up a long association with bassist Steve Swallow, with whom she has long played duets, both on the concert stage and in the recording studio. Her association with the late bassist Charlie Haden and his Liberation Music Orchestra was also fruitful. She penned three tunes for his Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969) and wrote the arrangements, which Lester Bangs writing for Rolling Stone called "miracles of dynamics." Dream Keeper (Blue Note, 1990) topped the Downbeat critic's poll for album of the year in 1991. Honors have continued to flood in over the years. Most recently, The New England Conservatory of Music awarded her an honorary doctorate, and she was awarded a Jazz Masters award in April 2015.

Taking stage right, aligned with pianist Laura Klein with her black Steinway B, the formally dressed, black-clad McQuarry, seated himself down in front of his Hammond-like Nord organ before addressing the audience. "Carla is from here," he explained before expressing glowing admiration for the more than 450 compositions Bley has penned over the course of her career. "We did not edit them," he announced, referring the compositions which would be performed during the evening. "We did not change them. They are just like Carla gave them to us."

The ensemble plunged right into "Blues in 12 Bars/Blues in Other Bars;"this wss the first of four tunes culled from 4x4, recorded in 1999 in Oslo, Norway, and energetic trumpeter Justin J. Smith led off with the first solo, one executed with a mute. Buoyant playing from Klein followed with a solo from enthusiastic and extroverted electric bassist Ted Burik, punctuated by organ stylings from McQuarry. Next up was "Sidewinders in Paradise." Prefaced with Klein's solo piano, the tune interwove flute and muted trumpet before it took off with the theme again before ending with a coda. The composition juxtaposed "Stranger in Paradise" with Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder." Lean and with his hair in braids, drummer Greg German soloed during "Baseball," and trombonist Ken Yee soloed wildly.

Then McQuarry introduced "Utviklingssang" (Norwegian for "Development Song"), relating that Bley's tune was inspired by the election of an indigenous Norwegian legislator. This lyrical composition, which was the final track on side B of the original recording of 4x4, brought the first set to a conclusion. An energetically fingered Burik bass solo was part of the equation.

After the break, the stage filled up, adding more brass players, including a musician lugging his baritone saxophone, as well as an additional saxophonist, Amelia Catalano. An acclaimed University of Berkeley psychological researcher, the mop-topped Bob Levenson took the stage and conducted vigorously. The big band provided a solid, cohesive sound throughout the three-number set.

During "On the Stage in Cages," the first of the three Bley-penned tracks from the recording Big Band Theory (Watt/ECM,1993), drummer Greg German kept the time with sticks, while tenor saxophonist Catalano soloed strongly.

For "Birds of Paradise" McQuarry introduced the Swiss-born violinist, Michele Walther, who also performs—along with German, Burik and Wright—in his band Resonance. The chestnut-haired Walther took stage right by the very front of the stage. The composition, created for violin and big band, allowed her to stretch out. Bassist Burik danced on his feet while Walther perched, at one point, on one leg. The piece ended in a violin crescendo.

"Fresh Impression" topped off the set, as the five-reed, eight brass orchestra brought it home with a solo by the behatted trumpeter John Worley, the only performer who had actually performed onstage with Carla Bley. An appreciative audience departed. Some will undoubtedly be back when McQuarry's next project, a set of lesser-known compositions by composer Gil Evans, premieres here next fall.

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