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Carla Bley Big Band: Looking for America

An ingratiating quality about Carla Bley, the musician and the person, is the way she plants her tongue firmly in cheek when composing, arranging, playing piano-or discussing her new album. Inevitably, sardonic wit pervades her search on Looking for America as fragments of “The Star-Spangled Banner” materialize-dreamlike, impressionistically and, above all, whimsically-throughout the CD. The fragments insinuate themselves most effectively on “The National Anthem” (a fascinating five-movement, nearly 22-minute-long suite that would have delighted the musical quote-meister of Americana, Charles Ives) replete with sly Bley titles such as “OG Can UC?” “Whose Broad Stripes?” and “Keep It Spangled.”

There are four maternal tracks that qualify as Bley’s “enigma variations”: “Grand Mother,” “Step Mother,” “Your Mother” and “God Mother.” Bley explains them as “fragments broke off from what seemed to be an emerging major work.” The pieces are held together by a series of two-note phrases and the rhapsodic French horn playing by Robert Routch.

Obsessed with traffic conditions, Bley gives us a way-up honker in “Fast Lane” and a more atmospheric report in “Tijuana Traffic.” She also gives a pulsating portrait of kitchen workers (its Spanish title, “Los Cocineros,” sounds infinitely more romantic) and a rollicking, yakety-yak romp on “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” that gives everyone a chance to slosh in the manure-E-I-E-I-Oh what a blast!

Soloists for all of the above that should be cited: trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist Gary Valente, tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard, alto saxophonist and flutist Wolfgang Puschnig and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, and we mustn’t forget the steadiness of Steve Swallow on bass.

Originally Published