Carla Bley’s reputation as an important composer and arranger is based on her work with larger ensembles. Trios is a glimpse into her aesthetic world stripped to its barest essentials.
“Les Trois Lagons (d’après Henri Matisse)” was inspired by three plates from Matisse’s Jazz, a book of cutouts. On Bley’s album 4X4, from 2000, it is rendered in subtly shifting layers and austere, stealth harmonies by an octet including piano, organ and four horns. Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow were in that octet, but on Trios they are all alone with Bley’s piano. No layers are possible, only open-ended implications and the stark designs created by three very different instrumental voices juxtaposed in space.
Sheppard, one of the great unsung tenor saxophonists in jazz, has played with Bley since 1987 and is now at home in all her idiosyncratic, cunning modes: her paper-dry wit, perverse logic, aslant lyricism and noir atmospheres. Swallow has been playing Bley tunes, with and without Bley, since the early 1960s. In a Bley band, his necessary role is that of lone resident romantic. No one gets a sound from the electric bass like Swallow—plangent and human, dark cries from the heart.
The effect of the reductive format is to etch Bley’s melodies in the air like bare branches against a winter sky. “Vashkar” and “Utviklingssang” prove that Bley can engage in beauty without irony. The former is a solemn, rapt, circular ceremony; the latter is Sheppard’s finest moment. All his filigrees and adornments, even his keenings above the tenor’s range, stay true to the song’s mantra, whose center is Bley’s obsessive piano repetitions. “The Girl Who Cried Champagne” (a very Bley title) proves that she can also partake of pure joy. Three players dance together, their feet never touching the ground.