Carla Bley Big Band: Looking for America

[2 December 2003]

By John Kenyon

It has been difficult to write about Looking for America, the latest disc from the Carla Bley Big Band, because it has seemed to mean different things with each passing day.

The disc, through no fault of its own, is like a mirror, reflecting the sentiment of whatever current event is most current. War in Iraq? Check. Unemployment? Check. Run-up to the primary season? Check. Like Bley, a lot of people are looking for America right now, and, if her music is any indication, what she and they are finding is a mixed bag.

The centerpiece of Bley’s disc is “The National Anthem”, a multi-part suite that serves as the composer’s update of sorts for “The Star Spangled Banner”. By exploring our national sounds through a somewhat fractured lens, Bley shows us ourselves in a way we hadn’t seen before, flaws and all. Early Bley associate Charlie Haden took a similar tack on 2002’s American Dreams disc. He calls it protest music, though it’s a different sort of protest. His “America the Beautiful” is gorgeous, and shows, he says, his view that America isn’t the America it once was. Bley goes further, seeing what we were as a function of what we have become. She reinterprets to the point that “The Star Spangled Banner” as we know it is a relic, hers is the new, true version. As she says in supporting material for the disc, “our poor National Anthem really could use some work.” An apt metaphor for the country it represents? Sure.

Oddly enough, the disc feels overtly political, but wasn’t meant as the critique it became. Bley started work on the disc before Bush was elected, and obviously well before Sept. 11. But it becomes politicized because of its time; a critique of the country is inherently politicized at a time when the President renders all such critique as unpatriotic.

“The National Anthem” begins with Steve Swallow’s bass, a melodic little riff that shows up throughout the first section, “OG Can UC?” as well as the last of five sections, “Keep It Spangled”, providing a melodic bookend of sorts that ties the work together. All five sections, spread over nearly 22 minutes, quote from “The Star Spangled Banner”, though such quotes, while clear and easily discerned, are only quick snippets, like another radio station coming in for a moment, dropping a bit of a second song behind the one to which you’re listening. The piece ebbs and flows—moving from the upbeat bookending pieces to the slower, more meditative “Flags” and “Whose Broad Stripes?”—but it never drags. It is a tour de force, and one of the finest of Bley’s compositions in a career full of high points.

Bley clearly loves writing for big band, and were it not prohibitively expensive, likely would do so more often. The last CBBB disc was 1996’s Goes to Church, with the more-easily toured combos of between two and eight people filling the subsequent time. On “The National Anthem” and elsewhere, however, Bley shows just what she can do with so many instruments at her service, using the variety of voices at her disposal masterfully. At times, the 18 pieces seem to clash in a cacophony, but often that very dissonance is used to great effect. On “Fast Lane”, for example, the group approximates a busy freeway, the horns honking madly as the rest of the band hurries the song along.

The group makes like Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass on “Tijuana Traffic”. The big band swings like Alpert’s group, but does so without sacrificing the off-kilter charm of Bley’s composition. “Los Cocineros”, a tune written about Mexican kitchen workers (the literal translation of the title), allows the group to play it soft and light, providing a nice mid-disc breather.

Other spacers come in the form of the four tunes with “Mother” in the title. Bley says the four are all that is left from a longer piece. They serve as bumpers throughout, introducing the disc with the short “Grand Mother” and popping up with “Step Mother”, “Your Mother”, and “God Mother” before the close.

The disc ends with Bley’s reinterpretation of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. It’s a remnant of another project—created for a never-released disc compiled by John Scofield’s wife, Susan, who envisioned versions of folk songs, nursery rhymes and such—but it fits. What’s more American than “Old MacDonald”? And what is more indicative of Bley than a reworking, nay, a turning-upside-down of such a tune? She twists and bends it to her will in a way that serves as a perfect complement for “The National Anthem”.

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