Excuse my native Scots, but “braw” has the range and the blessed informality, it expresses the most generalised approval, and can also mean something like beautiful, though it’s not gender-specific. It can even be a character reference, though alas I’ve never met the lady. The best I could do was remember an interview years ago, when a Scottish independent radio station matched Carla Bley‘s visit to my homeland with an interview.
It must have been long ago, since she spoke about meeting Charles Mingus in the supermarket, and taking up one of his tunes and paying for it by—in a sense—completing it, working out a section he had left open. She also, as I recall, mentioned inheriting the stupendous Lew Soloff from the late Gil Evans, and a commitment to the universe—saying how she felt—in running a large ensemble continuous with the legacy of Evans. Something would be lacking in the All if she did not put in an effort to sustain an ensemble which crops up here in her unreservedly recommendable selection from her ECM recordings in various capacities. The CD is well filled both in quantity and range of music, and in playing time. It concludes with a performance of one of her compositions by her former husband Paul Bley on piano, Jimmy Giuffre on clarinet, and her longtime musical partner Steve Swallow, photographed possibly at that session with the other two and the mighty double bass he is playing—rather than the smaller instrument which in his hands can be either and, I suppose, both bass or/ and guitar.
If you’re going to shoulder the burden of a big band on cosmological grounds—and that big or “very big” band has ample musical justification—a sense of humour is essential, and a sense of joy. She has both, as well as a great deal of fire. She also musters some wonderful musicians, Guy Barker as a section trumpeter for one instance.
A run-down of the programme can indicate some of the things she is capable of, beginning with the 1999 small big band sort of ensemble on “Baseball”, two saxophones and Lew Soloff and Gary Valente on trombone, him of the tone wider than many the big band. The holy roller feeling is deepened by the fun organ licks of Larry Goldings, in passagework between ensemble outbursts. “Major” follows this as a duet between the lady and Mr. Swallow, happy dancing which relaxes the spirit prior to “End of Vienna”, with its string quartet, flute and clarinet from the 1997 Fancy Chamber Music CD, whose title says a lot. This is unpretentiously serious.
Then there’s a 1994 performance with Andy Sheppard’s non-violently soft-toned energetic tenor completing a trio. From the 1993 Big Band Theory we have the Very Big Band, four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, Ms. Bley’s daughter Karen Mantler on organ as well as her mother on piano and Steve Swallow. “On the Stage in Cages” is a very varied performance, with preacher Valente emerging in solo as well as Messrs. Soloff and Sheppard. The title track from the live 1988 Fleur Carnivore is a conventional slower medium tempo performance by a medium-big band sounding at times like a big big one, and giving lots of space to Wolfgang Puschnig’s combustible alto. Bob Stewart’s tuba takes the music into an almost rinkytink skipping accompaniment to Lew Soloff’s emulation of the more conventional very accomplished playing of Cat Anderson. The orchestra has more development before Puschnig takes things out in impassioned style.
Hiram Bullock’s guitar does the initial solo work in the almost big band conception of “More Brahms” (Sextet, 1986-7) with the leader on organ over piano, bass, drums and Don Alias’s percussion. Larry Willis plays nicely on piano, and after the preceding 24 minutes of “big band” big band performance this is a beautiful relaxation, in nice contrast with the heavyweight champion percussion.
“Walking Batteriewoman” (Social Studies, 1980) has both euphonium and tuba, and Ms. Bley has one hand on organ and the other on piano on a theme of her quriky sort. Her husband, Mike Mantler, plays trumpet over the two saxophone, Valente and tuba ensemble. The same thing could be done louder by her Very Big Band, but I like her exercises in volume control. The odd ensemble is well collected behind Valente’s happily fluent trombone. The theme sounds somewhere between a tape being played backward and brass band Thelonious Monk. Nice after that to have the sober contrast of Don Cherry’s trumpet over the ensemble of Charlie Haden’s 1982 Ballad of the Fallen on “Silence”, which repeats a chord figure with all manner of subtle variation, especially individual and reviving entries to maintain momentum. Hard to do, worth the work.
“Why” from Escalator over the Hill is fun, and the Giuffre/Swallow/Bley (P.) trio winds things up with Carla B’s “Ictus”, a contemporary classical work for piano and clarinet which the bass-player doesn’t discourage from occasional tendencies to stomp at the Savoy. In the end, Carla Bley lets her music speak for her. If you have only two or three of her CDs, this will perhaps let you know about other things she can do. She’s a composer with a real identity—as a writer a little short of the ready cash just now I shall have to convert my urge to send her some flowers into a recommendation even to people who haven’t thus far thought to investigate any of the music of Carla Bley. The listing of albums in the booklet doesn’t diminish the picture of this lady as extremely variedly creative.