Carla Bley / Steve Swallow: Are We There Yet?

Carla Bley / Steve Swallow
Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet? is the third collection of duets performed by pianist Carla Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, following Duets (1988) and Go Together (1992). Aside from these three intimate encounters, the two artists have been connected to one another for the almost the entire span of their respective careers in music, dating back to the early 1960s when Swallow and Bley’s then husband, pianist Paul Bley, played in a classic trio with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and recorded a number of Carla Bley’s early compositions.

Once Bley started recording music as a leader in the 1970s, notably for her own WATT Works label (which she co-founded with Michael Mantler), Swallow was more often than not the bassist on the gig whether or not the band was a trio, an octet or a big band. Thus, to say that the two have a music rapport is a bit of an understatement.

That rapport is obvious on Are We There Yet?, culled from a 1998 European tour, reflected in the easy give-and-take between the performers, with the two effortlessly trading lead and rhythm roles throughout. The polished but unpretentious sound that we find here also reflects the fact that many of the tunes, such as the rhythmic opener “Major,” the Monk-like “King Korn” and Swallow’s “A Dog’s Life” have been on the duo’s playlist at least as far back as 1995. Further, the Kurt Weill original here, “Lost in the Stars,” was arranged by Bley and Phil Woods for Hal Willner’s Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill project, released in 1987, while “Music Mecanique” dates from Bley’s 1978 long play of the same name.

The fact that this material sounds fresh and engaging is a real testament to both the quality of the compositions and the quality of the players. On Are We There Yet? Swallow’s five-string electric bass gives him a much larger range than a conventional four-string bass, lending his moments in the proverbial spotlight a great deal of warmth and lightness, such as on the opening of the blues “A Dog’s Life” and on “Playing with Water,” a ballad in a sweet-yet-sophisticated Pat Metheny mode.

While Bley is in no sense a flashy pianist, she has the ability to be deadly accurate in terms of time, tone and phrasing, without sounding stiff or unspontaneous. That quality of her playing comes to the fore on the Swallow composition “Satie for Two,” named for the composer Erik Satie whose name is often evoked when Bley’s sound is discussed because of their shared penchant for writing fairly sparse music that is at once simple and quite beautiful, yet constructed with architectural precision. On “Satie for Two” Bley seems to play as little as possible, and in doing so concentrates the listener’s attention on the quality of the specific notes and chords she is playing.

In an interview Bley summed up her approach perfectly when she said, “I like chords that are very lush with all the lush parts taken out.” By taking that approach, by not continually filling out the sound, Bley and Swallow make music that is appealing, while also allowing for repeated listening because it calls on the attentive listener to hear everything that is presented, and everything that is held back.