Carla Bley’s humor shapes a good portion of her music, but it never becomes the main focus of a composition. “Awful Coffee,” the second of a two-part suite commissioned a festival devoted to “dinner music,” references six food-titled standards. Yet it’s easier to lock in on Bley’s sharp horn voicings or Steve Swallow’s graceful walking bass and to overlook the “Salt Peanuts” quote or the band’s shout of “Hey Pete, Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat” (also a Dizzy nod). A sly wink, musically speaking, can say so much.
Bley’s latest centers around “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid,” a 25-minute piece in four sections inspired by nightclubs and big bands of the 1950s. Part of it, in her unique fashion, takes inspiration from her brief stint working at a piano bar where her rigid repertoire and disregard for requests got her fired. As such, the mood ranges from lyrically sentimental (her opening piano solo) to hard swinging on a harmonic area not normally associated with big bands (via saxophonist Andy Sheppard, trombonist Gary Valente and trumpeter Lew Soloff).
“Someone to Watch,” an upbeat number with more expert work from Sheppard, includes a famous quote from the Gershwin classic with a similar name, which was actually Bley’s inspiration. But it doesn’t appear until the very end, where it serves more as reinforcement of Bley’s excellent writing.