by Ian Mann
October 19, 2023
Following the sad passing of pianist and composer Carla Bley a statement has been issued by ECM Records. Ian Mann also adds his personal reminiscences of one of the greats.
Carla Bley, 1936-2023
STATEMENT FROM ECM RECORDS
Our good friend Carla Bley has died, aged 87, after a long illness. One of jazz’s great composers, she was a stubborn and witty individualist who heard and wrote and played things differently. “She works in many forms,” critic Nat Hentoff noted, “and her scores for big jazz bands are matched only by those of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus for yearning lyricism, explosive exultation and other expressions of the human condition.” The large ensembles, remarkable as they were, were but part of the story.
The originality of Carla’s writing was evident already in the early 1960s as musicians including Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, Art Farmer, and George Russell began to play her pieces. Many of the tunes she wrote then have acquired the status of contemporary standards, among them “Jesus Maria”, “Ictus,” “Sing Me Softly of the Blues,” “King Korn,” “Vashkar,” and more.
“There are so many of them, each as well-crafted as pieces by Satie or Mompou—or Thelonious Monk for that matter,” as Manfred Eicher has observed, “Carla belongs in that tradition of radical originality.”
The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, of which Carla was a founder member, recorded her epic “Escalator Over The Hill”, described by Downbeat as “a masterpiece…maybe the most extensive and ambitious piece ever to come out of the jazz world.”
In 1973 Carla and Michael Mantler launched the WATT label which would be the primary platform for her work in the 20th century, with formats ranging from duos with Steve Swallow to the Very Big Band and idioms including “Fancy Chamber Music”, “Christmas Music”, “Dinner Music”, and the Dada-esque “I Hate To Sing”. Her arrangements for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra graced “The Ballad of the Fallen”, a 1982 ECM session with luminous settings of songs associated the Spanish Civil War and with revolutionary movements in El Salvador, Chile and Portugal.
Carla Bley’s last albums were the ECM recordings made at Lugano’s Auditorio RSI with the exceptional group with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow: “Trios”, “Andando el Tiempo”, and “Life Goes On”. As well as the group interaction, each of the recordings also emphasized the unique qualities of Bley’s pianism. Carla’s relationship with the instrument she had played since the age of four was sometimes troubled. “I would rather write music than perform it” she would often insist. “I’m at a disadvantage when I improvise since jazz solos are instant composition and I’m a slow and thoughtful composer. By the time I’ve thought of the next note, the chorus could easily be over.” Her admirers – count us in - waved away such protests. Any hesitations in the determined search for the good notes only added a touch of drama and Zen allure to the playing.
In later years, Carla herself seemed to be re-framing her reservations: “There’s nobody that plays like me — why would they?” she asked The New York Times. “So if I’ve had an influence, maybe it would be if they decided to play like themselves. In other words, the whole idea of not playing like anybody else is a way of playing.” She will be sorely missed.
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IAN MANN adds;
I was very sorry to hear this sad news. I’ve been a fan of Carla Bley’s music since the late 1970s / early 1980s and have been fortunate enough to see her performing live on a number of occasions.
In the 1990s I saw the Very Big Carla Bley Band at Birmingham Town Hall as part of the Silk Cut City Jazz Series. This was a real ‘all star’ line up with Carla at the helm and a band that included star soloists Lew Soloff (trumpet), Gary Valente (trombone), Andy Sheppard (saxophones) and, of course, Steve Swallow (electric bass). Superb musicianship was augmented by Carla’s surreal humour. All in all it was quite an experience.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I saw Carla play again. This was a brilliant performance at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival featuring her Lost Chords Quartet (Bley, Swallow and Sheppard plus Billy Drummond on drums) together with the Italian musician Paolo Fresu (flugel, trumpet). Their gig at the Town Hall was a definite Festival highlight. Much of the music that was played was sourced from the album “The Lost Chords find Paolo Fresu”, which was released by Watt / ECM in 2007. Cheltenham Jazz Festival gig review here;
The last time I saw Carla perform live was at the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival when she directed the Liberation Music Orchestra at Cadogan Hall. This was another brilliant performance from a stellar line up, with Carla on piano one of the outstanding contributors. Review as part of my Festival coverage here.
I count myself lucky to have seen three outstanding and very different shows featuring Carla Bley and I also continue to enjoy listening to her recordings. I also enjoy hearing her compositions played by other people, most notably vibraphonist Gary Burton.
Carla Bley’s music will live on, but there’s no doubting that we’ve lost one of the greats. My condolences to Steve Swallow, Karen Mantler and to Carla’s family, friends and associates.
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