Carla Bley’s Jazz Language

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Carla Bley is often labeled a free-jazz artist. That’s a mistake. Her music and piano playing are distinct, and they aren’t abstract in the free sense. They simply adhere to a jazz dialect that’s all her own and completely different from traditional modern and free-jazz players. While there’s a dash of abstraction in her expression, her music adheres to calculated, architectural construction with melody and harmony thought out in advance. 

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Her original works have rhyme and reason but go up like the twisted, undulating buildings by architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. They adhere to gravity but do their best to make you think they don’t. The music Carla creates also is landscaped lavishly with sensitivity and delicacy. Carla excels in this regard, too.

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This week in the WSJ (go here), I interviewed Carla for my „House Call“ column in the paper’s Mansion section. For an hour, we talked about her years growing up in East Oakland, Calif., the early death of her mother and her father’s remoteness. We talked about her piano playing as a child, her music, her signature hair style, and why she decided to catch a ride cross-country to New York in the early 1950s to hear Miles Davis at the Cafe Bohemia. Then she took a job at Birdland and spent 10 years with a tray of cigarettes and stuffed animals around her neck so she could listen to jazz at the club. Only then did she start composing. [Photo above of Carla Bley at 6, courtesy of Carla Bley]

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She married Paul Bley in 1957 and recorded for the first time as a leader in 1968—a three-LP jazz opera that featured a young singer named Linda Ronstadt who was eager to experiment. Today, Carla lives with Steve Swallow, a singularly warm and exciting electric bassist. They are happy and lucky, Carla says, because they are able to play and compose music all day long.

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If you’re unfamiliar with Carla, here are 10 tracks that prove her jazz lingo is conversational and easy to absorb, provided you can let yourself be blown around a bit like a kite. Her piano approach is intense, organic and breezy, akin to listening to rain falling in the forest:

Here’s Copycat Part 1: After You, from her latest album, Life Goes On, with Steve Swallow…

Copycat I. After You

Here’s Naked Bridges – Diving Brides from Andando el Tiempo in 2015, with Steve Swalow…

Naked Bridges – Diving Brides

Here’s The Girl Who Cried Champagne. Pt. 1, 2, 3 from Trios in 2013, with Steve Swallow…

The Girl Who Cried Champagne Pt. 1 2 3

Here’s Fresh Impression, with Carla’s big band, on Big Band Theory from 1993, with Steve Swallow…

Fresh Impression

Here’s Peau Douce, from Go Together in 1992, with Steve Swallow…

Peau Douce

Here’s Ladies in Mercedes from Duets in 1988, with Steve Swallow…

Ladies in Mercedes

Here’s Last Night from Carla in 1986, with Steve Swallow…

Last Night

Here’s Pretend You’re in Love from Night-glo, one of my favorites, from 1985, with Steve Swallow…

Pretend You’re in Love

Here’s Joyful Noise from Heavy Heart in 1983, also a favorite, with Steve Swallow…

Joyful Noise

And here’s Over Her Head from Escalator Over the Hill in 1968, with Linda Ronstadt on vocal…

Over Her Head

JazzWax clips: Here’s music expressed intimately, like lovers in conversation. Carla and Steve playing Intro

Here’s Miles Davis at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1961 playing On Green Dolphin Street, from Carla’s favorite album…

And here’s the Count Basie Band at New York’s Birdland in 1953, when Carla was working at the club. Basie is Carla’s favorite pianist…

      

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