CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM)

A review of the trio's fourth album

Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow: Life Goes On
The cover of Life Goes On from Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow

The endless staircases of M.C. Escher’s castles don’t demand a soundtrack to be appreciated, but if you bask in Carla Bley’s “Copycat” while absorbing a few of the Dutch artist’s impossible labyrinths, you might be in for extra fun. One of Life Goes On’s three micro-suites, Bley’s piece arrives with a process mandate: Each line of the group’s performance should be an echo or variation of the preceding line. That leads to a wonderfully fluid symmetry. The choices pour forth, pensively at first, and then puckishly, as is often the esteemed composer’s wont. The fourth album in a quarter-century’s worth of collabs by the buoyant trio of the pianist, bassist Steve Swallow, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, Life Goes On teems with the kind of balance that has marked their previous discs, but it also boasts an extra dose of eloquence. 

Though I’m still citing the band’s masterpiece as 2013’s “Utviklingssang” (as finely cut a jewel as the MJQ’s “Django”), the level of detail at work on this latest disc is unmistakable. “Beautiful Telephones,” the pianist’s gibe at 45’s cluckish oogling over the Oval Office’s squawkbox, glows with the ominous tone of an étude penned by Bernard Herrmann. Bley knows we’re in deep shit these days, so her allusion to Chopin’s “Funeral March,” along with wry references to “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle,” and other American chestnuts indicts us all for allowing Trumpian freedom to ring. As each passage inches forward, Sheppard’s concise moves match Swallow’s plush choices. The group’s chemistry is ultra-refined at this late date; the carefully calibrated sharing of duties brings a quizzical serenity to this improv-slanted chamber music.

Bley has told interviewers she’d like to be writing for a big band, but current economics demand a more scaled-down stance. No worries. The 81-year-old’s trademark humor still gets its moments in the sun. For example: “Copycat” ends a 15-minute-long parade of slippery tradeoffs with a curt three-note phrase that finds each musician in perfect accord. Same place, same time, at last. Feel free to put your grinning-face emoji right there. 

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Jim Macnie

Jim Macnie is a music writer who contributes to DownBeat and blogs at Lament For a Straight Line. He’s been working in digital media since since 2000, initially as VH1.com’s Managing Editor and, currently, as a Senior Producer and Editor at Vevo. He enjoys Little Jimmie Dickens, Big Joe Turner and Medium Medium.