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January/February 2008

Carla Bley
The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu
Watt

At first the affiliation appears counterintuitive. Carla Bley is a fiercely quirky, cerebral pianist/composer/arranger whose wit is pervasive and sandpaper-dry, and whose ambiguous lyricism recoils from the sentimental. Paolo Fresu plays trumpet with aching, heart-on-sleeve romanticism.

It not only works, it is the best album in years from each of them. The fact that Fresu fits seamlessly into Bley’s band the Lost Chords (Andy Sheppard on reeds, Steve Swallow on bass, Billy Drummond on drums) proves that he is an unusually brainy sensualist. And the purity and warmth and soulfulness of his sound make Bley’s lyricism less ambiguous.

There is a six-part suite called “The Banana Quintet” that contains some of Bley’s most austere, indelible writing for small ensemble. As the parts evolve and proceed, connections suggest themselves in recurrent thematic fragments. But the suite’s strongest unifying factors are mood and atmosphere. Through Latin and blues and 5/4 iterations, the voicings stay mysterious and melancholy, even when, without warning, the bass line of the fourth section becomes the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

Sheppard is a soloist of fluid, deceptive creativity. Fresu’s lines of poetry hang in the air. Swallow’s electric bass sings like any guitar. But in a Bley band the group entity is paramount. The mini-orchestra kaleidoscopically forms and re-forms. The horns call and cryptically respond and veer and commingle in counterpoint.

“Death of Superman/Dream Sequence #1—Flying” was written for the late Christopher Reeve. It is spare and somber and extremely poignant. Fresu and Sheppard sound like different inflections of the same lyric intelligence, Fresu muted, whispering of loss, Sheppard on tenor softly calling behind him.

Originally published in January/February 2008
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