CARLA BLEY AT 80:
Bley/Swallow/Sheppard in Concert, May 11, 2016, Steinway Hall, NYC
Concert review by John Pietaro
The invite-only crowd lined up in the midtown flagship of the Steinway Piano company, the walls flanked by museum-quality instruments of deep black and stark white. The formality of the main room carried through into the new Steinway hall, a small auditorium with exquisite sound quality, but once the musicians were on stage, the polite quietude transformed into the hiply pensive. The occasion was the 80th birthday of renowned pianist and composer Carla Bley; the date served as both a concert by her trio with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow, and as a celebration of their new release on ECM, “Andando el Tiempo”.
Bley’s chamber trio kicked off the evening with the world premiere of “Copy Cat”, a lengthy, meditative piece that acted as something of a coda to the new album (see this writer’s review of “Andando el Tiempo” in the June issue of The New York City Jazz Record). According to Bley, the piano manuscript alone is 90-some pages long. While “Copy Cat” is driven by space, it maintains an underlying rhythmicity within Swallow’s 5-string electric bass drive and the pianist’s own terra firma. Andy Sheppard, in his high-voiced tenor saxophone, is often a perfect front to the Bley compositions, with use of circular breathing and extended techniques in addition to a singing, mournful tone. Though this music is complex enough that all members of the trio are, in essence, playing lead, the horn stands in its traditional role out front, and Sheppard’s voice on the instrument may be as unique as the composer herself. As the saxophonist engaged in featured forays, Bley often watched intently, seemingly as adamant about accompaniment as she was about her place as leader and the creator of the piece.
But this concert was not specific to Carla Bley, composer, for there was nearly as much piano art on display on stage as there was lining the venue. As she stated during the later Q and A segment, “I finally learned to really play the piano a few years ago”, indicating her earlier reliance on the organ or simply conducting in larger ensembles. She seems to have become one with the instrument: during more intense moments, she embraces it bodily, leaning over with head bowed almost to the point of her face touching the keys. The spiritual nature of such a posture, wrapping herself in the sound source, seemed all too appropriate to the moment.
The lack of a drummer in this chamber-oriented trio allowed for the full breadth of piano, saxophone and bass. Steve Swallow tended to hold the grooves together but surely, the three maintained great command of pulse, propulsion and vibe. There was also something of a nostalgic moment in the bossa nova which the second selection was built on; Swallow’s years with Stan Getz were reflected as he danced nimbly across his fingerboard and Sheppard’s tenor melody offered more than a hint of the Getz alto tone. With Bley loosely dropping rhythmic chords over and about the others, one could imagine her in the Gary Burton role of that early ‘60s Getz bossa-drenched quartet. In this regard, the evening was a nod to the era in which these fine veterans of the music first came of age.
At 80 years old, Carla Bley has given the listening public decades worth of gifts. She has developed new philosophies of the music, made any number of large experimental ensembles swing, co-founded the Liberation Music Orchestra, begat the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, dabbled in punk-rock and straightahead jazz and shapeshifted at will. Most recently, Bley, in a small, somewhat fragile looking frame and brief halo of silver-gray, has taught us to breathe in the spare tonal music she is focused on at the moment.
Even at largo, she hasn’t slowed down a bit.