The Carla Bley many of us think of first is the provocateur, the straw-haired iconoclast behind the sprawling avant-garde opera Escalator Over the Hill and the composer of arresting, splattered arrangements for big bands and medium ensembles. But there’s another side to Bley’s work that is almost the mirror opposite of that: music that shimmers tenderly, becoming a balm for the listener. That’s the territory traversed by the drummer-less trio of Cardenas (guitar), Allison (bass), and Nash (woodwinds) on Healing Power.
The nine selections strike a neat balance between the familiar and the obscure, and the trio takes care not to concentrate on one specific phase of Bley’s chronology. They challenge themselves to braid their interplay and improvisations in a manner that honors the spirit as well as the structure of Bley’s songs. It’s a simple sophistication that can be deceptively difficult to manage, but from the album’s opening moments, when you hear the inimitable refrain of Bley’s classic “Ida Lupino,” you appreciate the dexterity of the ensemble’s caress.
The emotional and intellectual depth of Bley’s quieter compositions also inevitably arises from the bonds she formed with her most influential interpreters. Many of her earliest compositions, including at least three on Healing Power (“Ictus,” “And Now, the Queen,” and “King Korn”), were first recorded in the 1960s by pianist Paul Bley, her first husband. Her current partner, bassist Steve Swallow, has played with her in various groups for more than a half-century. The luminous “Olhos de Gato,” which translates as “Cat Eyes,” is a favorite of vibraphonist Gary Burton. It is the stealth highlight of Healing Power, a textbook showcase for how Carla Bley writes themes that invite improvisers to dance, generating a wealth of terse but inspired solos (two by Nash on clarinet) and loving accompaniment.