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Bright Moments With Carla Bley

The composer and pianist reflects on highlights from her discography

Carla Bley (photo by Caterina Di Perri/ECM Records)
Carla Bley (photo by Caterina Di Perri/ECM Records)
Carla Bley with Charlie Haden in the early 1980s (photo by Roberto Masotti/ECM Records)
Carla Bley with Charlie Haden in the early 1980s (photo by Roberto Masotti/ECM Records)
Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard (photo by Caterina Di Perri/ECM Records)
Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard (photo by Caterina Di Perri/ECM Records)
Carla Bley leads Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of the Detroit Jazz Festival)
Carla Bley leads Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of the Detroit Jazz Festival)
Carla Bley as seen in the packaging for 1971’s Escalator Over the Hill

It was Nov. 4, and Carla Bley sat at the piano at Jazz Standard in New York, gesticulating at drummer Matt Wilson during “Silent Spring,” one of Bley’s elegiac compositions on Time/Life: Song for the Whales and Other Beings, the Liberation Music Orchestra’s fifth album over as many decades. The orientation of the stage made it so that only Wilson had a clear sightline to the conductor’s Warholian shock of hair. He communicated cues to the band with subtle cymbal shots, so seamlessly it felt as though Charlie Haden, the band’s late founder, was in the room.

Before the show, the 80-year-old high priestess of chamber jazz sat down with her daughter, Karen Mantler, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, CUNY, to reflect on her peripatetic career. Bley’s artistic wanderings span free-jazz collaborations with Steve Lacy, the sprawling operatic masterwork Escalator Over the Hill, the enduring prog-rock classic Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports and the uncanny soundtrack to director Claude Miller’s Mortelle Randonnée.

In this candid conversation, she discusses the influence of Count Basie, Stravinsky and the Beatles, and reveals the backstory to Andando el Tiempo, her arresting recent release with her longtime drummer-less trio featuring her husband, the bassist Steve Swallow, and multireedist Andy Sheppard. Bley calls the album “a soundtrack to one person’s recovery from addiction.”

Inspired initially by the partisan rancor of the 1968 presidential election, the Liberation Music Orchestra’s work is still far from finished. Time/Life, Haden’s “final” album (he appears on two tracks), extends the social-justice mission to environmental advocacy, and Bley has committed to continuing his legacy. Haden himself delivers the album’s poignant final words: “The whales represent all living creatures. They’re so precious and so wonderful, just like this universe is, like this planet is and like you are. You have to never forget that.”

Carla Bley/Mike Mantler/Steve Lacy
Jazz Realities
(Fontana, 1966)

I think I met Michael Mantler in New York around the time of the October Revolution [at the Cellar Café in 1964]. We decided to try to improve the situation of jazz musicians, like better gigs.

I was basically a composer and so was Michael, so it was like two composers trying to play their instruments, and banding up with a couple of musicians who were basically players and didn’t write that much. We got to do tunes, and it was free playing, no chord changes. It was probably just one day in the studio. We had a gig in Italy on a little stage at a restaurant, and I don’t see how they served any food while we were playing, because it was really raucous and totally free jazz and hopelessly adolescent, with all this energy and nowhere to put it.

It was not good because people would come up to [bassist] Kent Carter and say, “Can you slap that thing instead of picking it? Just slap it.” It was awful, and we didn’t stay together for very long. I think it was just that one record and that was it.

I had known Steve Lacy very well before this band. I liked him much better than I liked Coltrane’s or anybody else’s soprano playing. Then he worked in a band I had at Phase 2, a little coffee shop, and we played only Monk tunes, and that’s where I learned all the Monk tunes. I actually was there when Monk used [Lacy] for a week at the Jazz Gallery [in 1960]. I was working there in the cloakroom. I got to use him later that year, and if Monk had continued to use him I wouldn’t have had him.

Interesting guy, marvelous troublemaker who loved paintings more than reality. We would be driving through the Alps on tour and he’d be looking at a book of modern art. “Hey, there’s the Matterhorn!” And he’d say, “Ah, but this Salvador Dalí. You’ve got to see it.”

Carla Bley/Paul Haines
Escalator Over the Hill
(JCOA, 1971)

Most of it was composed in advance, but there was one tune Don Cherry was playing on—they just started playing and they played for 15 minutes and then they stopped. So I took one of the licks that Don had played and I made it into a tune, just cutting the tape. It was that one that goes [sings “A.I.R. (All India Radio)”]. I didn’t write that; he just made that up.

Paul Haines wrote the words in India, where he lived at the time. He was a teacher of English, and I lived in New York City, and we never met for the writing. He would send the words and I would put them to music.

I wrote for Jack Bruce. I met Jack when I saw him at the Fillmore West with Cream, and we were sharing a dressing room. I wasn’t playing there, but I was there in somebody’s dressing room, and I said, “Oh, man, you were great. I’m a real big fan,” and he said, “Oh, I’m your greatest fan. I thought [Gary Burton’s Bley-composed] A Genuine Tong Funeral was incredible.” And then I wrote this thing for him. When I invited him to be in it, he said yes, and so I was glad since I had written it all for him. I wrote it for Linda Ronstadt, too. I guess I wrote it for all my friends, people I had heard of, or known, or that were around me. I just put them all in it. [English entertainer] Paul Jones asked if he could be in it. I even put in people that were on the street at the time. I’d say, “I need some background singers,” and they’d say, “OK!” Boy, those were the days.

And I didn’t stint on paying them. They all got paid a union wage. We raised money to do all of this stuff from rich people. Paul Haines knew someone, and he got some money from them, and then I borrowed $20,000 from John D. Rockefeller’s wife; she cosigned the loan because Timothy Marquand [a participating vocalist] was her nephew. Rich people, poor people—there was a lot of mingling in those days. Rich people were fascinated by artists, and the artists were fascinated by the rich people. It’s still going on, but that’s how we got the money for it.

I went to Teo Macero and John Hammond and Francis Wolff, and everybody said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, but we’re not going to sell anything like that. We can’t do it.” So I finally put it out myself.

I don’t know where I got the idea for the locked groove. [The LP set’s final track, “…And It’s Again,” closes with a continuous loop.] I just thought it was a good idea, and it was hard to do in the recording, and in the actual manufacture of the vinyl, but we carried it off. I’d heard that idea earlier in our piece “Holiday in Risk,” where it’s as though the record player got stuck on the line [sings], “Staying, staying, staying…” It went on and on.

Charlie Haden
Liberation Music Orchestra
(Impulse!, 1970)

I got together with Charlie through Paul Bley. Paul Bley had a band at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles and Charlie was the bass player, and I went to the club every night. That was my education. If working in Birdland as a cigarette girl was my college, that was definitely my high school. I dropped out of school very young, so I didn’t have any of the regular stuff, just the musical stuff. And so I got to know Charlie while he was Paul Bley’s bass player, and we became friends. We shared a lot of the same tastes, not only in music but in the way things looked, the way things sounded, the way things felt—everything. We were in tune with each other. We would like a certain chord in a certain piece, and he would say, “Yeah, that’s my chord, too! I love that chord.”

When Paul Bley’s band got fired from the Hillcrest Club and Charlie took the gig with Ornette [Coleman], Charlie and I were out of touch for a while because he was in New York and I was in L.A., or vice versa. When he wanted to make his first album, he called me and asked if I would arrange the music, because he liked what I had done with A Genuine Tong Funeral. And he also knew that it was like hiring himself to do it, because he knew I would come up with the same things he would have done if he could have.

I put a lot into it, and it turned out to be a good album. I think we both chose the guys in the band, it was half and half, and it was his idea to use actual portions of original recorded music from the Spanish Civil War. We laid that on afterwards. We knew when we were recording that there would be these songs where this ghost would appear in the middle during somebody’s solo.

It was recorded live, and there were actual old soldiers that had fought in the Spanish Civil War in the front couple rows. They were very old, and they sat there nodding their heads, but I don’t know if they liked the music that much.

That was nice and it gave me a certain cred. I didn’t have a social life in terms of career. I always wanted to just sit and listen and not do the argle-bargle part, so I think I got some recognition for being on that album.

Nick Mason
Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports
(Columbia, 1981)

I knew [Pink Floyd drummer] Nick Mason through Gary Windo, who was Nick Mason’s car mechanic, but he also was a tenor player. When he got a vanity record offer—everyone from Pink Floyd could make their own album—Nick Mason didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have anything in mind at all, so he asked me if I had anything. I wrote the songs and I wrote the words, and he chose to do it. We recorded it at my house; I had a studio in the basement then. He wanted Yul Brynner to be the singer, but he didn’t want to do it. So Nick came up with Robert Wyatt, and I already knew Robert Wyatt and was a big fan of his, but the songs were not written for him or for that band.

The songs were written for a punk rock band that I had called Penny Cillin and the Burning Sensations, and I was Penny Cillin. Peter Apfelbaum was in it. He would sweep the floor as we played, and I would lie on my back and play C melody saxophone, and we were just wonderfully crazy people. I met all those guys at Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, and I taught there for a semester, but I really just raised havoc and had food fights in the dining room, and made them into useless social creatures. Steven Bernstein was one of my students.

I had a studio in my basement, and Nick Mason had a studio somewhere in London, so we did all the overdubbed Robert Wyatt vocals in London. I don’t know if anybody conducted. It was just a small band, and I counted it off and stopped it at the end. That’s still what I do.

Carla Bley
Mortelle Randonnée (Soundtrack) (Mercury, 1983)

I never saw the movie, but I remember there were some wonderful things that the guys came up with. I think the director was a fan. We recorded it at my house, and there was “Sad Paloma,” and “Whistling Palomino.” The music was written before. I didn’t write it by looking at the film. This wasn’t writing music for a film in the way that most people are asked to do it. I just gave him the material, and they used the bits in the film wherever they wanted to use them. So there was no me looking at the film and writing a piece that would match what was happening onscreen. It was just my imagination.

I don’t know what I was thinking, but I didn’t think a lot in those days. I just did things without using an editor. I didn’t have to. People let me do whatever I wanted to do, because I was not bothering anybody except myself and my friends.

Carla Bley/Steve Swallow
(Watt/ECM, 1988)

First we had to have a band. We practiced and got enough tunes together that we thought we could get some work as a duo. I had a booking agency, so I said, “Steve and I want to work as a duet, but we don’t want to work in Europe or anything. We just want to get a gig in the Caribbean. We want to work at some club that has a nice beach, and we go on each night and play for cocktails.” I got a letter back saying, “That’s really stupid. You could do this in the capitals of Europe.” So we had to go to the capitals of Europe, and it became a viable band. It was easy rehearsing; we just went down to the basement where the piano is and played.

Then we recorded it for my own label. I could have recorded anything I wanted to record, and I chose to do that. We kept that band going for like 20 years I think, until it got to the point where I couldn’t stand the tension anymore. You would be playing at a nightclub somewhere in the middle of Europe and you’d have to walk through the audience, and people would be taking your picture and making you nervous. I wanted to have somebody to take the spotlight off of me so I could have a good time. So that’s when we went to trios.

[Saxophonist] Andy Sheppard takes all the attention. He’s standing up there and I’m just hunched over the piano. I have to have that situation. I’m not Liberace or something. I can’t play with any flourishes—no big endings.

Carla Bley
Fleur Carnivore
(Watt/ECM, 1989)

I wanted one guy from every country. I got Italy, Germany, England, Austria, France, Denmark. Some people think that’s my best big-band album, but it isn’t even big band yet—it’s 10 horns. The poor oboe player [Daniel Beaussier] had to stand in front of [trombonist] Gary Valente, because the reeds were in front of the brass. And he would just have tears streaming down his face as he played.

I really didn’t want to do big band. I was such a fan of Count Basie, I thought, “Why would anyone ever want to do big band again?” That was it. You can’t just keep working on something that’s already finished. But I don’t like the idea of somebody thinking I can’t write for big band.

When I first started, I didn’t know about phrase marks or any of the articulations. I read that in a book later. And I didn’t want to be weird. I wanted to be part of the whole progression of big band, and hopefully survive somewhere in a little dark corner after Count Basie’s name. I don’t think I ever succeeded in that.

I used [drummer] Buddy Williams first, from the Saturday Night Live Band, but then I used the Count Basie Orchestra’s drummer, Dennis Mackrel. I thought with CB—Carla Bley, Count Basie—I could get those old stands, and that would have been funny.

The Carla Bley Big Band
Goes to Church
(Watt/ECM, 1996)

I had written a piece called “Setting Calvin’s Waltz,” and that was like 20 minutes long, and I thought, if I had some more music that had to do with the church, I could maybe just make an album. So the other piece that I had written was “Major,” which was something I wrote for a Mozart birthday gig at the Public Theater.

Then I arranged a Carl Ruggles piece for the big band. I looked through all my titles, and I thought maybe we could do “One Way,” because you could say Jesus’ way or something. And I cobbled together these tunes, but really the only two that were religious were the Carl Ruggles and “Setting Calvin’s Waltz,” which were really a “Bringing in the Sheaves” kind of thing from my old church days. I played piano in the church before I played it anywhere else.

Carla Bley
The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu
(Watt/ECM, 2007)

As a record-company executive, I said, “You’ve got to do something different. People are only going to buy the record if it’s something different. Let’s do something really weird that people would be curious about. How about the Lost Chords with the Tabernacle Choir, or the Lost Chords with the Alligator Man?” But the guys wanted Paolo Fresu, and I thought, OK, I’ll write an album for Paolo Fresu. I’ve never met him. It took a long time—about a year.

The first rehearsal, we were in Basel, Switzerland. I remember the first gig, and we had of course only that one rehearsal for the whole tour and record. So the very first night in Basel, I thought we couldn’t possibly play this. We were only in the third song and we hadn’t even got the ending right. I was going crazy, and everyone was standing there waiting valiantly for me to rehearse the next song, and they wanted to stay without eating if they had to. But we went out and played it live and it turned out great. They just played their hearts out and made up things that weren’t right and made them better than the written part, and I just cried onstage when the audience applauded. It was the first time I had ever heard it. How much happier could you get in your life? Maybe some people could be happier if they had grandchildren, but not me. I like a piece of music to get me off.

I had that one quote [in the composition “Four”]. I thought it was Led Zeppelin. I must have heard it and it just stuck in my head without my knowing what album or what group it was. And it was the Paul McCartney line [sings “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”]. I just loved that, and I didn’t know what it was. I was touring with Charlie at the time, and I asked the guys in the band, and Matt Wilson and Steve Cardenas said, “She’s So Heavy.” And I said, “The Beatles? I quoted the Beatles?” And they said, “Yeah, I’m afraid you did.” Mr. McCartney, I hope you don’t mind my doing that, but what a great bassline.

There were five of us, so I tried to do things in 5/4, and I tried to do things that were five measures before the bridge, and then everything possible that made it five instead of four. Because it was a quintet. Stupid reason, but fun. I can amuse myself. That’s the way I’ve made a living all my life. If I think it’s good or funny, I just do it. What freedom that is. I wish everyone had that.

Don’t water it down, whatever you’re doing, man. Just do it exactly as you hear it, and as you grow you’ll become bigger but only because you’re adding things that you want to add, not that somebody told you to slap the bass. I don’t think anyone cares what any of us do anymore, because we’re such a small little kingdom, the jazz kingdom. They let us do what we want to do, and the more we do what we want to do, the more they like us. Stravinsky did whatever he wanted to do. That’s my favorite composer at this point in my life. Stravinsky, “Symphony of Psalms”—big influence.

Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow
Andando el Tiempo
(ECM, 2016)

I think we’ve been together about 23 years. I wanted a saxophone player that sounded different. All the guys in New York at the time—at least the ones I knew—were trying to sound like John Coltrane, and I wanted to get somebody that didn’t. That’s why I got Johnny Griffin for the Hal Willner thing [That’s the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk], because he didn’t sound like Coltrane. After Coltrane, it was like the coming of Jesus and everybody became Christian. But I wanted somebody that was still a heathen, and I found my perfect heathen in London. Steve Swallow had known him in advance, and had been the producer on several of his albums, and when I said I didn’t want a Coltrane clone, he said, “I’ve got the guy for you, but he lives in England.”

Andy had played on Fleur Carnivore, and he had hired me and Steve to play trio on something he did for the BBC or something in New York City. We just clicked right away. Even at the beginning we were playing with a lot of pleasure together. The part of me that finds pleasure from things that are wrong, like the Portsmouth Sinfonia or something, this was the tiny little place in me that found pleasure from being right.

Andy Sheppard is so melodic. I transcribed one of his solos once, and it wasn’t what he played at all—it was how he played. What a lesson that is. If I want to play in the States, they’ve got to bring Andy over. We’re playing the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., and they’re bringing Andy over and paying for the visa. It costs a lot of money to bring him over, particularly now. I don’t even know if they let musicians leave. We’ll see how Theresa May does with the arts.

There were all these things that have kept us together. We like to eat the same food; we enjoy each other’s company. During a tour, usually some people will split off and be by themselves, but we stick together. I think the corny word is family.

This album was written specifically for the trio in the last few years. I can’t tell you who the person is who was an alcoholic. I always said it was just an addiction, but it was alcohol. I wrote this whole piece while he was in that state, because that’s what was on my mind. Some of the stuff that came out was pretty sad, probably because I was pretty sad.

So I just kept writing. He couldn’t get out of it, which is the first piece, “Sin Fin”—no ending. Then the second piece was how bad everyone in his family felt about how “he can’t go on like this”—he’s going to kill himself. So that was the sadness in the middle of “God, this guy has got so much talent and he can’t do it anymore. He can’t do what he was doing.” And the whole last part, “Camino al Volver,” that was going to meetings, that was eating better, that was finding non-alcoholic things you could drink with your meal. That was exercising, that was getting in shape, that was trying to get your mind into a position where that pleasure center was not pushed, and having maybe worked out some alternative things. Just trying as hard as he could, and he made it. I wrote the piece during the whole experience, and it’s like a soundtrack to one person’s recovery from addiction.

“Saints Alive!” was written when Andy Sheppard got married and he was very happy for the first time in a long while, and I just tried to say, what do wedding bells sound like? “Naked Bridges/Diving Brides” comes from Paul Haines’ Secret Carnival Workers.

Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra
Time/Life: Song for the Whales and Other Beings
(Impulse!/Verve, 2016)

Charlie wanted it to be environmentalist. I think it was [Ruth Cameron Haden’s] idea first. I had a piece called “Silent Spring” that was written like 20 years ago, when I first heard of Rachel Carson [author of the landmark conservationist book Silent Spring]. Charlie said, “Finally, I can do ‘Song for the Whales,’ because we always said, ‘That doesn’t have anything to do with Richard Nixon.’” And luckily [Haden] was still alive when we got to play it, and we played it live in Europe and that’s on the recording, and he played it so great.

I wrote “Time/Life” within 24 hours of the time he took his last breath. Ruthie called me. I was in the garden at the time and I had the phone with me, and she called and said, “Charlie’s gone. He died last night.” And I was all flustered, and I said, “Wait a minute! I’m in the garden. Just going to put these peapods in my basket and I’ll call you right back.” So I wrote this piece and it took me four months to write it.

It had a place for every guy to say goodbye. Every guy got eight bars and that was the goodbye. And every time something went wrong, if there was a mistake in the background, I would say, “I’m sorry, you’ve got to do it over again. I know you just played the greatest solo of your life, but you’ve got to take another one.” And whoever it was at the time would take another great solo that was greater than the one that went before. That was the first time I ever really loved that band.

Just like Andando, it was more than music. This was really going back to when music was something that you didn’t just listen to, you watched. And you were there, you experienced, you felt all this stuff. It was going back to a higher form of music I thought that the band had reached, and God, I hope they do it tonight, man.

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Aidan Levy

In addition to JazzTimes, Aidan Levy’s work has appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Nation. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he specializes in jazz studies. He has played baritone saxophone with the Stan Rubin Orchestra, Cotton Club All-Stars, and various other groups. He is at work on a biography of Sonny Rollins for Da Capo Press.