Carla Bley is an intriguing and sometimes vexing figure in jazz. She has much in common with the music’s towering figure, Duke Ellington. Like Duke, she is primarily a composer/arranger rather than a virtuoso pianist, and she has worked with a relatively static group of musicians in her bands over the years, with her best work being scored for jazz big band.
Unlike Ellington, she came of age after the big band had virtually vanished from regular jazz life — her first work with other musicians does not appear until the late 1960s, and her own recordings begin in the ’70s. She met musicians by working as a cigarette girl at Birdland in the 1950s, married pianist Paul Bley (and later trumpeter Michael Mantler — and still later partnered with bassist Steve Swallow), and gradually become known for her beautiful and puckish tunes.
Bley might be described as the Woody Allen of jazz in this sense: she consistently turns out work using her repertory crew of players, and she is deeply respected even as she appeals to a somewhat narrow jazz audience. The long, early work “Escalator Over the Hill” is her Annie Hall. But as more of Bley’s music emerges over the years, it is sometimes hard to know how to think about it or to what it compares. The whole Bley enterprise — her record label WATT, her fascinating partnership with Swallow, her occasional use of her daughter, Karen Mantler, on organ or vocals, her corral of intriguing soloists like Gary Valente and Andy Sheppard — is eccentric.
And Appearing Nightly can certainly be described as an eccentric recording, a live documentation of Bley’s big band in a Paris nightclub, performing a series of tunes that are alternately defined by their associations with food (such as “Greasy Gravy”) and by their subtle quotation of jazz standards. As always with this composer, the arrangements astonish with their sophistication and wit. And the improvisations are substantial and interesting. That being said, there is an aimlessness to this music in places. Carla Bley Cuisinarts jazz history with some élan, but not always to a purpose that communicates.
The centerpiece of the record, its jumping-off point, is “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid”, which clocks in at 25 minutes. Bley had a lounge pianist job at the Black Orchid in Monterey (and the piece was commissioned for the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival), so it begins with the leader playing a curious mélange of different standards — some Monk, a generous snatch of “My Foolish Heart”, some others. The rhythm section enters to allow Swallow, on his great electric bass, to play a solo that builds tremendous anticipation. As the horns enter, Bley cops the infectious two-note figure that Dizzy used on his big band’s arrangement of “Manteca” before Bley’s own evocative melody begins. The arrangement moves over several different feels as the soloists play inventively and fluidly, including a hard stop that allows Bley to restart the tune as a ballad that will eventually wind its way back home.
The food-themed pieces have a programmatic integrity. “Greasy Gravy” is, in fact, down home and slathered with a bit of oil. It struts and slinks, not unlike a very sophisticated bump-and-grind at times. It’s nice to hear Bley herself play a clean and elegant solo at the end. “Awful Coffee” begins with a jittery figure, and when the rhythm section starts swinging, the theme turns Monk-ish and angular — with a palpable sense of being caffeinated.
“Someone to Watch” gets its title from the Gershwin tune, a ballad. How weird, then, to find that this arrangement is a boppish affair that starts with an allusion to “Salt Peanuts”. The writing is lavish and thrilling on the bridge, where the swing is suspended and all the horns weave in a hip musical tapestry, but it seems to have nothing to do with the Gershwin tune. The long tenor saxophone solo by Andy Sheppard carries a ton of weight, giving way to a lush setting for alto. When the melody finally returns properly, it seems that George and Ira will be nowhere in evidence — until the last few seconds, when Bley quotes the tune precisely but for only a couple of bars. Typical Bley-ian play: obtuse and witty. And strange.
The recording ends with Bley’s arrangement of the Ray Noble tune “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You”. She explains that she was writing an original melody but soon realized that it was so close to the Noble song that she might as well give in to the coincidence. Still, there is plenty of fun in the way the arrangement forces the band to do more than just swing the changes. It is a lush arrangement with a huge swath of sound combinations, but they mostly come from bags that jazz fans will know. And that is what makes Appearing Nightly a treat of a Carla Bley recording: it is identifiably hers, while still placing her work in the context of jazz history.
Fans of Carla Bley can be assured — this is a sharp and enjoyable night with her band at its melodic best. Newcomers to her canon may not understand exactly what all the fuss is about, as this disc is subversive by simply dealing non-ironically with the past. Not neo-conservative, I think, but rather just plainly in the mood for some connection — less goofing on the tradition than winking at it. It’s a carefully struck balance, and one that compliments Carla Bley’s often self-conscious peculiarity. The hip cigarette girl of the ’50s may have become a jazz-hip hippie, but her warm nostalgia for her roots gives you a fine — and musically enjoyable — dose of faith.