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Carla Bley / Andy Sheppard / Steve Swallow: Trios

John Kelman By

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In a career more defined by memorable compositions than instrumental acumen, it's easy to forget that Carla Bley may not be the most virtuosic pianist on the planet, but she's a far more than capable one, as evidenced on duo recordings like Are We There Yet? (Watt, 1999), with life partner/bassist Steve Swallow, and Songs With Legs (WATT, 1995), a trio date with longtime collaborator, saxophonist Andy Sheppard—also heard in Bley's larger ensemble of Appearing Nightly (Watt/ECM, 2008) and quartet session, The Lost Chords (Watt/ECM, 2004). On Swallow's recent Into the Woodwork (XtraWATT/ECM, 2013), Bley proved a clever, quirky and comedic organist; with Trios—an album that, perhaps for the first time ever, features absolutely no new compositions—Bley reunites the Songs With Legs trio, refocusing attention on her thoughtful, precise piano work.

That's not to suggest there isn't still a clever compositional mind at work in these fresh, intimate arrangements of music ranging from Bley's elegiac "Utviklingssang," her most-recorded ballad that first appeared on Social Studies (Watt, 1981), to lesser-known but still previously recorded suites including "The Girl Who Cried Champagne," from the aptly titled Sextet (Watt, 1987) and "Wildlife," heard for the first time on the larger ensemble session Night-Glo (Watt, 1986). Only the dark-hued "Vashkar"—one of Bley's most well-known tunes, having appeared on Tony Williams' fusion classic Lifetime (Polydor, 1969) and, most recently, on John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana's Invitation to Illumination: Live at Montreux 2011 (Eagle Vision, 2013)—is played on record by Bley for the first time.

Driven by Swallow's superb time—all the more essential to a group's without a drummer—Bley's reading of "Vashkar" opens with the pair exploring its mid-eastern modality for a full ninety second before Sheppard comes in, on soprano, to double its memorable yet quirky melody with Bley's right hand. Sheppard's star has been on the ascendancy for years, but most recently on the superb Trio Libre (ECM, 2012), his second recording as a leader for the label. Here, he demonstrates the same kind of care-ridden patience, his solo reflecting a trio whose ears are wide open, meticulously responding to each others' every move. Even as they adhere to the song's form, there's the sense that were this to be immediately followed by another take, it would be an entirely different experience.

Swallow introduces "Utviklingssang" alone, its haunting melody soon joined by Bley, whose thoughtful introduction of a contrapuntal theme and spartan supporting chords yield to sparer accompaniment still when Sheppard finally enters. While time is something to which the trio adheres carefully when required—Swallow's inimitable swing fundamental to the first section of "Les Trois Lagons (d'après Henri Matisse)"—Trios' ultimate beauty is in the interpretive nuances that allow time to be ever-so-slightly pliant—subtly stretched and compressed to imbue these five pieces with their own personalities.

The balance of the program consists of longer, multipart compositions, but remains underscored by the same attention to detail. Without muss or fuss, Bley, Swallow and Sheppard have, with Trios, created that most perfect of chamber records, filled with shrewd surprises and a delicate dramaturgy that reveals itself further with each and every listen.

Track Listing: Utviklingssang; Vashkar; Les Trois Lagons (d'après Henri Matisse): Plate XVII, Plate XVIII, Plate XIX; Wildlife: Horns, Paws Without Claws, Sex With Birds; The Girl Who Cried Champagne: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Personnel: Carla Bley: piano; Andy Sheppard: tenor and soprano saxophones; Steve Swallow: bass.

Title: Trios | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ECM Records

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