Carla Bley / Steve Swallow / Andy Sheppard / Billy Drummond: The Lost Chords

Carla Bley / Steve Swallow / Andy Sheppard / Billy Drummond
The Lost Chords

This is a very nice set by Carla Bley’s working quartet, with the mellow-toned and eloquent English tenor (and sometimes soprano) saxophonist Andy Sheppard, the invariably sparky Billy Drummond on drums, and Steve Swallow’s bass guitar providing the quality and variety of underspringing that makes so much of Carla Bley’s music so refreshing.

Ms. Bley has long been spoken of as an exponent of composer’s piano, but it’s fairer to say that in this tremendously together foursome she wastes no notes — and every note she plays means a lot. She has a wide palette, and ranges from playful to powerful, and the band has its own direction rather than being obviously under any player’s leadership. The presentation suggests that The Lost Chords is in fact the band’s name — maybe as a set of individual human beings rather than as a playing group. The insert has some comic stuff from Ms. Bley’s diary, and some intentionally amusing album (photograph album) snapshots.

The opener is a quite on-the-theme “Three Blind Mice”, with something of Monk in the solo piano opening, followed by the tenorist applying his soft tone to produce some fluffy, delicate phrases the pianist emulates in not such Monkish style. The second set of variations finds Sheppard on soprano over a sort of drone from Swallow, really digging in. There’s a little play on Philip Glass repetitivism (subtitled “Leak Wink”). “Traps” continues the joke by being a drum feature over Swallow’s bass — traps being an archaic term for jazz drums — and a third sub-section mysteriously titled “Leonard Feather” might derive from the English Sheppard’s acquaintance with London rhyming slang. The ancient critic — who once inspired (if that is the word?) the great cornetist Muggsy Spanier’s uncomplimentary “Feather Brain Blues” — was an Englishman too. To help you spot the tune, here are some new words Ms. Bley might like to consider (my terms are invariably generous): “Don’t know why fun’s a thing I shouldn’t try, / Leonard Feather… keep playing all the time…”

The two parts of the third movement are titled “The Maze” and “Blind Mice Redux”, and the Thelonious Monk pastiche is plain and colourful. This isn’t to say the music’s shallow.

“Hip Hop” is something of a send-up of boogaloo, Swallow digging in but sounding remarkably light for a performer of such music. The drumming is crisp and the piano delicate in playing with sub-gospel cliché. This sounds like a sketch for a big band approach to the possibilities of the tune that has just been improvised on — though the lightweight “Hip Hop” isn’t formally part of that delightful exercise in quirkiness. There are some playful echoes of latter day Miles Davis rock bands, but while this performance might have lulled an audience, it does seem to have gone on a bit after a couple of listenings.

“Tropical Depression” starts somewhat sultry, with Sheppard light and feathery over an accompaniment dominated by Swallow, in which Bley contributes a lot of colour before her own solo. With the more brisk “Red”, the music has become serious, with less manifest playfulness.

The title suite has Sheppard playing a melancholy line on soprano, with the piano and bass building behind him in a climax, from which he descends to admit Swallow’s entry doing his guitar sort of thing. The conclusion, working through another orchestral climax of piano, soprano and drums, moves by way of a melancholy segue into a pacy, nonetheless melancholy second section. Sheppard’s articulate solo is followed by Swallow deploying his instrument’s bass capacities. The grand chorded piano climax opens the third and final section with Drummond putting in a lot of work. Sheppard plays soprano in what is largely a concerted ensemble conclusion. It’s a little surprising, to say the least. There are quite a few worthwhile surprises here.