Carla Bley
(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Krentz Ratings:
Gary Burton: Genuine Tong Funeral (1967), 8.5/10
Michael Mantler: Jazz Composer's Orchestra (1968), 8.5/10
Charlie Haden: Liberation Music Orchestra (1969), 8/10
Escalator Over the Hill (1971), 8.5/10
Tropic Appetites (1973), 7/10
Michael Mantler - Carla Bley (1975), 7/10
Dinner Music (1976), 6/10
Musique Mecanique (1978), 7/10
Social Studies (1980), 6/10
Live (1981), 5/10
I Hate to Sing (1981), 5.5/10
Mortelle Randone (1982), 5/10
Heavy Heart (1983), 6/10
Night-Glo (1985), 4/10
Sextet (1986), 5.5/10
Duets (1988), 5/10
Very Big Carla Bley Band (1990), 5.5/10
Go Together (1992), 5/10
Big Band Theory (1993), 6/10
Goes to Church (1996), 6/10
Fancy Chamber Music (1997), 6/10
4x4 (1999), 6/10
Looking for America (2002), 6/10
The Lost Chords (2003), 5.5/10
Appearing Nightly (2006), 7/10
Andando El Tiempo (2015), 5/10
Armadillo World Headquarters Austin Texas (2018), 5/10
Life Goes On (2019), 7/10

White Oakland-born pianist Carla Borg (1938) married Paul Bley in 1957 and moved with him to Los Angeles. After composing Bent Eagle for George Russell's Stratusphunk (1960) and Ictus for Jimmy Giuffre's Thesis (1961), she became her husband's main composer, penning: Floater and King Korn on Footloose (1963), Ida Lupino and Syndrome on Turning Point (1964), the entire Barrage (1964), most of Closer (1965), Start on Touching (1965). She left Paul Bley for trumpeter Michael Mantler in 1965.

Mantler and Bley formed a large star-studded jazz orchestra, the Jazz Composers' Orchestra, that debuted with Communication (april 1965) and Jazz Composers' Orchestra (june 1968), obtaining immense critical success. In between those albums, Mike Mantler on trumpet, Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone, Carla Bley on piano and two bassists recorded Jazz Realities (january 1966), including Bley's Oni Puladi (the habanera Ida Lupino played in reverse).

Those collaborations would have been enough to establish her as a major figure of the decade, but she also composed the whole of Gary Burton's A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967) and most of Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra (1969), two milestones of jazz. By the end of the decade, she could vie for the title of greatest living jazz composer with Mingus and Ellington.

Her public image was quite schizophrenic, on one hand a living advertisement for the bohemian lifestyle of the hippie generation, on the other hand an austere and uncompromising modernist. Her compositional ambitions clearly collided with the aesthetic of free-jazz, although she displayed an ideological affinity with free jazz. Perhaps these contradictions were precisely what made her music so unique and powerful.

Bley topped everything she had done so far with the colossal three-LP jazz opera Escalator Over The Hill (june 1971), the result of three years of recordings, one of the greatest albums in the history of jazz music. The large orchestra was actually structured in four orchestras. The Orchestra proper (and Hotel Lobby Band) was a 19-piece unit with Carla Bley (piano), Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone), Gato Barbieri (tenor saxophone), Chris Woods (baritone saxophone), Michael Mantler and Enrico Rava (trumpets), Roswell Rudd, Sam Burtis and Jimmy Knepper (trombones), Jack Jeffers (bass trombone), Bob Carlisle and Sharon Freeman (French horns), John Buckingham (tuba), Nancy Newton (viola), Karl Berger (vibraphone), Charlie Haden (bass), Paul Motian (drums), Roger Dawson (congas), Bill Morimando (bells, celeste). The Desert Band featured Bley (organ), Don Cherry (trumpet), Souren Baronia (clarinet), Leroy Jenkins (violin), Calo Scott (cello), Sam Brown (guitar), Ron McClure (bass) and Motian (percussion). The Original Hotel Amateur Band comprised Bley (piano), Mantler (valve trombone), Motian (drums), Michael Snow (trumpet), Howard Johnson (tuba), Perry Robinson and Peggy Imig (clarinets), Nancy Newton (viola), Richard Youngstein (bass). Jack's Traveling Band consisted of Carla Bley on organ and the power-trio of John McLaughlin (guitar), Jack Bruce (bass) and Paul Motian (drums). Finally, the "silent music" was performed by Michael Mantler on prepared piano, Don Preston on synthesizer and Carla Bley on organ, celeste and calliope. The singers ranged from country star Linda Ronstadt to avantgarde vocalist Jeanne Lee. Bley's score, spanning jazz, electronic, rock and Indian music, was of Wagner-ian proportions and ambitions, combining pathos and epos in a way that had not been tried before in jazz music. Most of the pieces were brief, like a lattice of morphing ideas, except for Hotel Overture, Rawalpindi Blues and the closing And It's Again. Her intricate dissonant unstable multi-stylistic structures amounted to a refounding of jazz music.

By comparison, Tropic Appetites (february 1974) was a mini-opera for vocalists (Julie Driscoll, Karen Mantler) and jazz septet (Gato Barbieri on tenor, Michael Mantler on trumpet and trombone, Howard Johnson on clarinets, saxophones and tuba, Toni Marcus on violin and viola, Dave Holland on bass and cello, Carla Bley on piano and organ, Paul Motian on percussion), but the stylistic excursion was no less breathtaking, from the What Will Be Left Between Us and the Moon Tonight? to Indonesian Dock Sucking Supreme to Song of the Jungle Stream. The humbler setting shifted the emphasis from creative chaos and abandon to impressionistic timbral and textural exploration.

Bley proved that she could also excel in neoclassical music with the lyrical 3/4 for piano and orchestra, on Michael Mantler - Carla Bley (august 1975).

Dinner Music (september 1976) was Bley's version of slick muzak (Sing Me Softly of the Blues, A New Hymn and Song Sung Long), featuring herself, Mantler, Richard Tee (piano), Carlos Ward (alto and tenor saxophones and flute), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Bob Stewart (tuba), and a funky rhythm section of two guitars, bass and drums.

Her mood seemed to have relaxed considerably, and Musique Mecanique (november 1978) was the ultimate proof, almost a divertissment for tentet. The 23-minute three-movement Musique Mecanique and Jesus Maria and Other Spanish Strains were bizarre but not too cerebral (and frequently humurous) compositions, highlighted by the solos of tenor saxophonist Gary Windo and trombonist Roswell Rudd. The other players (besides Bley and Mantler) included Alan Braufman on reeds, John Clark on french horn, Bob Stewart on tuba, Terry Adams on piano, Steve Swallow and Charlie Haden on basses, and Eugene Chadbourne on guitar. Like all of her best works, this was both jazz, rock and classical music, while being blasphemous to them all.

During the following years Bley seemed to have lost her determination (more than her inspiration), alternating works in different fields: Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (october 1979), the "solo" album by Pink Floyd's drummer (mostly composed by her), the funk-jazz-rock fusion of Live (august 1981), the playful tentet I Hate To Sing (august 1981), with cartoonish tracks such as I Hate To Sing and Lone Arranger, the film soundtrack Mortelle Randone (december 1982). The only album that matched her former discipline was Social Studies (december 1980), highlighted by a postmodernist Reactionary Tango scored for a surreal nonet (Bley, Mantler, Ward, Valente, Swallow, tenor saxophone, euphonium, tuba, drums).

The ambient/melodic side of her art returned to the fore with the adventurous tentet music of Heavy Heart (october 1983), that relied on Bley's synthesizer and Valente's trombone, more than on the other horns (Mantler's trumpet, tuba, flute, saxophones), and on the delicate rhythm section (Kenny Kirkland's piano, Hiram Bullock's guitar, Steve Swallow's bass and two percussionists), to scupt the relaxed atmospheres of Heavy Heart and Light or Dark. Night-Glo (august 1985), credited to both Bley and Swallow (and the first one without Mantler), was lounge music for yuppies. The Bley-Swallow mellow-fusion sound was formalized by the Sextet (december 1986) with guitarist Hiram Bullock, pianist Larry Willis and two percussionists, in particular by The Girl Who Cried Champagne and Healing Power, as well as Lawns, one of her signature tunes.

The duo albums with Swallow, Duets (summer 1988), mostly devoted to old material, and Go Together (march 1992), highlighted her melodic talent, but little else.

Bley had not forgotten the orchestra, though. The 18-piece Very Big Carla Bley Band (october 1990), featuring four soloists (Valente, trumpeter Lew Soloff, saxophonists Wolfgang Puschnig and Andy Sheppard), failed to resurrect the original Carla Bley spirit, despite the 15-minute United States and especially All Fall Down. The 17-minute Dreamkeeper Suite for Charlie Haden's third Liberation Music album, Dreamkeeper (april 1990), fared a bit better. Bley's 18-piece orchestra (same four soloists, main addition the violinist Alex Balanescu) fared even better in the 20-minute suite Birds of Paradise on Big Band Theory (july 1993). Also notable for big band was the 24-minute Setting Calvin's Waltz on the live Goes To Church (july 1996).

A trio with Swallow and Sheppard yielded the semi-serious Songs With Legs (may 1994), with Wrong Key Donkey.

Her truly serious compositions (the 19-minute Tigers in Training, the nine-minute End of Vienna, the 14-minute Wolfgang Tango) finally appeared on Fancy Chamber Music (december 1997), featuring Bley on piano, a string section (violin, viola, cello, bass), flute, clarinet and percussion.

The return to form continued with 4x4 (july 1999), for a double quartet of sort (Bley on piano, Larry Goldings on organ, Steve Swallow on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Lew Soloff on trumpet, Wolfgang Puschnig on alto, Andy Sheppard on tenor, Gary Valente on trombone), that contained Blues in Twelve Bars and the three-movement Les Trois Lagons.

Looking For America (october 2002), a work for big band with the same four horn soloists, was political satire with a high degree of musical sophistication, as demonstrated by the 22-minute postmodernist audio-collage National Anthem.

Bley debuted a quartet with Sheppard, Swallow and drummer Billy Drummond on The Lost Chords (october 2003). It was mostly taken up by two suites: 3 Blind Mice, that displayed her knowledge of blues and jazz tradition, and Lost Chords, that showed Bley the melodic poet in her most romantic mood.

Appearing Nightly (august 2006) features Earl Gardner, Lew Soloff, Florian Esch on trumpet, Beppe Calamosca, Gary Valente, Gigi Grata, Richard Henry on trombone, Roger Jannotta, Wolfgang Puschnig, Andy Sheppard, Christophe Panzani , Julian Arguelles on saxophones, Karen Mantler on organ, Steve Swallow on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. Its centerpiece is a four-movement fantasia inspired by lounge and dancehall jazz of the 1950s.

The Black Orchid (2005) was a sort of autobiographical concept.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Gianfranco Federico)

La pianista bianca di Oakland Carla Borg (1938) sposò Paul Bley nel 1957 e si trasferì con lui a Los Angeles. Dopo aver composto Bent Eagle per Stratusphunk (1960) di George Russell e Ictus per Thesis (1961) di Jimmy Giuffre, divenne la principale compositrice per il proprio marito, scrivendo: Floater e King Korn su Footloose (1963), Ida Lupino e Syndrome su Turning Point (1964), l’intero Barrage (1964), la maggior parte di Closer (1965), Start su Touching (1965). Lasciò Paul Bley nel 1965 per il trombettista Michael Mantler.


Mantler e Bley formarono una grande orchestra jazz piena di star, la Jazz Composers' Orchestra, che debuttò con Communication (aprile 1965) e Jazz Composers' Orchestra (giugno 1968) ottenendo un immenso successo di critica. Tra questi due album, Mike Mantler alla tromba, Steve Lacy al sassofono soprano, Carla Bley al piano e due bassisti registrarono Jazz Realities (gennaio 1966), che include Oni Puladi della Bley (l’habanera Ida Lupino suonata al contrario).

Quelle collaborazioni sarebbero state sufficienti per definirla una delle maggiori figure della decade, ma compose anche  l’intero A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967) di Gary Burton e la maggior parte di Liberation Music Orchestra (1969) di Charlie Hayden, due pietre miliari del jazz. Alla fine della decade poteva contendersi il titolo di più grande compositore jazz vivente insieme a Mingus ed Ellington.

La sua immagine pubblica era alquanto schizofrenica, da una parte una pubblicità vivente per lo stile di vita bohémien della generazione hippie, dall’altra una modernista austera e intransigente. Le sue ambizioni compositive collidevano chiaramente con l’estetica del free-jazz, sebbene ella mostrasse una certa affinità ideologica con il free-jazz. Forse queste contraddizioni furono precisamente ciò che rese la sua musica così unica e potente.

Bley superò qualunque cosa avesse fatto fino a quel momento con la colossale opera jazz Escalator Over The Hill (giugno 1971), il risultato di tre anni di registrazioni, uno dei più grandi album nella storia della musica jazz. La grande orchestra venne nientedimeno strutturata in quattro orchestre. L’Orchestra vera e propria (e la Hotel Lobby Band) era un’unità di 19 elementi con Carla Bley (piano), Jimmy Lyons (sassofono alto), Gato Barbieri (sassofono tenore), Chris Woods (sassofono baritono), Michael Mantler e Enrico Rava (trombe), Roswell Rudd, Sam Burtis e Jimmy Knepper (tromboni), Jack Jeffers (trombone basso), Bob Carlisle e Sharon Freeman (corni francesi), John Buckingham (tuba), Nancy Newton (viola), Karl Berger (vibrafono), Charlie Haden (basso), Paul Motian (batteria), Roger Dawson (congas), Bill Morimando (capanelli, celeste). La Desert Band includeva Bley (organo), Don Cherry (tromba), Souren Baronia (clarinetto), Leroy Jenkins (violino), Calo Scott (violoncello), Sam Brown (chitarra), Ron McClure (basso) e Motian (percussioni). The Original Hotel Amateur Band comprendeva Bley (piano), Mantler (valve trombone), Motian (batteria), Michael Snow (tromba), Howard Johnson (tuba), Perry Robinson and Peggy Imig (clarinetto), Nancy Newton (viola), Richard Youngstein (basso). Jack's Traveling Band comprendeva Carla Bley all’organo e il power-trio John McLaughlin (chitarra), Jack Bruce (basso) and Paul Motian (batteria). Infine, la “silent music” era eseguita da Michael Mantler al  piano preparato, Don Preston al sintetizzatore e Carla Bley ad organo, celeste e calliope. I cantanti spaziavano dalla star del country Linda Ronstadt alla vocalist d’avanguardia Jeanne Lee. Il risultato di Bley, che combina jazz, elettronica, rock e musica indiana, era di proporzioni wagneriane, e coniugava pathos e epos in un modo che non era mai stato provato prima nella musica jazz. Molti dei brani erano brevi, come un lattice di idee mutevoli, ad eccezione di Hotel Overture, Rawalpindi Blues e la chiusura And It's Again. Le sue strutture intricate, dissonanti, instabili e multi-stilistiche miravano ad una rifondazione della musica jazz.

In confronto, Tropic Appetites (febbraio 1974) era una mini-opera per cantanti (Julie Driscoll, Karen Mantler) e settetto jazz (Gato Barbieri al tenore, Michael Mantler alla tromba e al trombone, Howard Johnson al clarinetto, al sassofono e alla tuba, Toni Marcus al violino e alla viola, Dave Holland al basso e violocello, Carla Bley al piano e all’organo, Paul Motian alle percussioni), ma l’escursione stilistica non era più mozzafiato, da What Will Be Left Between Us and the Moon Tonight? a Indonesian Dock Sucking Supreme a Song of the Jungle Stream. L’impostazione umile spostò l’enfasi dal caos creativo e dal trasporto emotivo verso timbri impressionistici ed esplorazioni di texture.

Bley dimostrò di poter eccellere anche nella musica neoclassica con la lirica 3/4 per piano e orchestra, su Michael Mantler - Carla Bley (agosto 1975).

Dinner Music (settembre 1976) era la versione di Bley della musica pulita (Sing Me Softly of the Blues, A New Hymn e Song Sung Long), con lei stessa, Mantler, Richard Tee (piano), Carlos Ward (sassofono alto e tenore e flauto), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Bob Stewart (tuba), e una sezione ritmica di due chitarre, basso e batteria.

Il suo mood sembrava essersi rilassato considerevolmente, e Musique Mecanique (novembre 1978) fu l’ultima prova, quasi un divertissment per dieci elementi. Musique Mecanique, di 23 minuti e in tre movimenti, e Jesus Maria and Other Spanish Strains erano composizioni bizzarre ma non molto cerebrali (e di frequente spiritose), sottolineate dai solo del sassofonista tenore Gary Windo e del trombonista Roswell Rudd. Gli altri musicisti (oltre a Bley e Mantler) includevano Alan Braufman alle ance, John Clark al corno francese, Bob Stewart alla tuba, Terry Adams al piano, Steve Swallow e Charlie Haden al basso e Eugene Chadbourne alla chitarra. Come tutti i suoi lavori migliori, questo era sia jazz, sia rock, sia musica classica, pur essendo blasfemo nei confronti di tutti questi generi.

L’anno seguente Bley sembrò perdere la propria determinazione (più che l’ispirazione), alternando lavori in diversi campi: Fictitious Sports (ottobre 1979) di Nick Mason, l’album “solista” del batterista dei Pink Floyd (prevalentemente composto da lei), la fusion jazz-rock di Live (agosto 1981), il tentetto giocoso I Hate To Sing (agosto 1981), con brani da cartone animato come I Hate To Sing e Lone Arranger, la colonna sonora del film Mortelle Randone (dicembre 1982). L’unico album che la riportò alla sua vecchia disciplina fu Social Studies (dicembre 1980), messo in luce da una postmoderna Reactionary Tango, composta per un surreale ensemble di nove elementi (Bley, Mantler, Ward, Valente, Swallow, sax tenore, eufonio, tuba, batteria).

Il lato ambient/melodico della sua arte tornò alla ribalta con l’avventurosa musica per tentetto di  Heavy Heart (ottobre 1983), che contava sul sintetizzatore di Bley e sul trombone di Valente, più che sugli altri fiati (la tromba di Mantler, tuba, flauto, sassofono) e sulla delicata sezione ritmica (il piano di Kenny Kirkland, la chitarra di Hiram Bullock, il basso di Steve Swallow e due percussionisti), per scolpire le atmosfere rilassate di Heavy Heart e Light or Dark. Night-Glo (agosto 1985), accreditato sia a Bley sia a Swallow (e il primo senza Mantler), era musica lounge per yuppies. La fusione matura tra Bley e Swallow fu formalizzata dal Sextet (dicembre 1986) con il chitarrista Hiram Bullock, il pianista Larry Willis e due percussionisti, in particolare in The Girl Who Cried Champagne e Healing Power.

L’album a due con Swallow, Duets (estate 1988), dedicato in gran parte a vecchio materiale, e Go Together (marzo 1992) evidenziarono il suo talento melodico, ma poco altro.

Eppure, Bley non aveva dimenticato l’orchestra. Very Big Carla Bley Band (ottobre 1990), con quattro solisti (Valente, il trombettista Lew Soloff, il sassofonista Wolfgang Puschnig e Andy Sheppard) fallì nel resuscitare lo spirito originale di Carla Bley, nonostante i 15 minuti di United States e soprattutto di All Fall Down. Dreamkeeper Suite, di 17 minuti, per il terzo album dei Liberation Music di Charlie Haden, Dreamkeeper (aprile 1990), fa un po’ meglio. L’orchestra di 18 elementi di Bley (gli stessi quattro solisti, principale aggiunto il violinista Alex Balanescu) fa ancora meglio nella suite di 20 minuti Birds of Paradise su Big Band Theory (luglio 1993). Degno di nota anche per una big band era Setting Calvin's Waltz, di 24 minuti, sul live Goes To Church (luglio 1996).

Un trio con Swallow e Sheppard pubblicò il semi-serio Songs With Legs (maggio 1994), con Wrong Key Donkey.

Le sue composizioni davvero serie (Tigers in Training di 19 minuti, End of Vienna di nove minuti, Wolfgang Tango di 14 minuti) apparirono finalmente su Fancy Chamber Music (dicembre 1997), con Bley al piano, una sezione di strumenti a corda (violino, viola, violoncello, basso), flauto, clarinetto e percussioni.

Il ritorno alla forma continuò con 4x4 (luglio 1999), per un doppio quartetto di sorta (Bley al piano, Larry Goldings all’organo, Steve Swallow al basso, Victor Lewis alla batteria, Lew Soloff alla tromba, Wolfgang Puschnig al sax alto, Andy Sheppard al tenore, Gary Valente al trombone), che conteneva Blues in Twelve Bars e Les Trois Lagon, in tre movimenti.

Looking For America (ottobre 2002), un lavoro per big band con gli stessi quattro solisti ai fiati, era una satira politica con un alto grado di sofisticazione, come dimostrato dal collage post-moderno di 22 minuti National Anthem.

Bley mise insieme un quartetto con Sheppard, Swallow e il batterista Billy Drummond su The Lost Chords (ottobre 2003). Esso era occupato prevalentemente da due suite: 3 Blind Mice, che metteva in mostra la sua conoscenza della tradizione blues e jazz, e Lost Chords, che esibiva la poetessa melodica Bley nel suo stato d’animo più romantico.

Appearing Nightly (agosto 2006) comprendeva Earl Gardner, Lew Soloff, Florian Esch alla tromba, Beppe Calamosca, Gary Valente, Gigi Grata, Richard Henry al trombone, Roger Jannotta, Wolfgang Puschnig, Andy Sheppard, Christophe Panzani , Julian Arguelles ai sassofoni, Karen Mantler all’organo, Steve Swallow al basso e Billy Drummond alla batteria. Il suo fulcro è una fantasia in quattro movimenti ispirata dal lounge e dal jazz da dancehall degli Anni Cinquanta.

The Black Orchid (2005) era una sorta di concept autobiografico.

Andando El Tiempo (november 2015) with Steve Swallow on bass and Andy Sheppard on saxes debuted a 29-minute three-movement suite.

Armadillo World Headquarters Austin Texas (march 2018) documents a live performance with Mike Mantler (trumpet), Gary Windo (tenor sax), Alan Braufman (alto sax), John Clark (French horn), George Lewis (trombone), Bob Stewart (tuba), Blue Gene Tyranny (keyboards), Patty Price (bass) and Phillip Wilson (drums).

Life Goes On (may 2019) contains three suites performed with Andy Sheppard (saxophone) and Steve Swallow (electric bass).

Carla Bley died in 2023 at the age of 87.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Antonio Saluzzi)

Andando El Tiempo (novembre 2015) con Steve Swallow al basso e Andy Sheppard ai sax debuttava con una suite in tre movimenti di 29 minuti.

Armadillo World Headquarters Austin Texas (marzo 2018) documenta un'esibizione dal vivo con Mike Mantler (tromba), Gary Windo (sax tenore), Alan Braufman (sax alto), John Clark (corno francese), George Lewis (trombone), Bob Stewart ( tromba), Tyranny Blue Gene (tastiere), Patty Price (basso) e Phillip Wilson (batteria).

Life Goes On (maggio 2019) contiene tre suite eseguite con Andy Sheppard (sassofono) e Steve Swallow (basso elettrico).

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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