This First In-Depth Examination of Jazz Icon 'Carla Bley' was Worth the Wait

Carla Bley never sacrifices depth for the sake of accessibility and never delves so deep as to become inaccessible.

Carla Bley

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Length: 128 pages
Author: Amy C. Beal
Price: $22.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-11

Jazz legend Charlie Haden has called her his soulmate, both Steve Swallow and her first husband Paul Bley have recorded albums dedicated to her music and her singular spirit; rock artists such as Jack Bruce and Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) have collaborated with her, and critics have been hailing her as the genius she is, almost since her arrival on the American jazz scene in the late '50s. And yet there’s a dearth of written material covering her life and work. Author Amy Beal writes that this volume, the first to examine Bley in any depth, could be the first utterance in what we can only hope is a much longer––and louder––conversation.

Part of the American Composers series, which has also featured works examining Elliott Carter, John Cage, and Dudley Buck, Carla Bley never sacrifices depth for the sake of accessibility and never delves so deep as to become inaccessible. Both are rather remarkable, when you consider that Beal accomplishes her task of covering Bley’s life (which began in 1936) and work (shortly thereafter) in just under 100 pages. Beal’s prose is often lyrical and always dynamic, she instantly finds the appropriate pacing for the narrative and, just as quickly, demonstrates deep knowledge of and affection for her subject.

And about that subject.

Born Lovella May Borg in Oakland, California, the young composer was raised in a Christian fundamentalist household and received remarkably little formal musical training given her undeniable genius for the discipline. Her church roots, Beal writes, have followed her all the way into the present day in the manner that Charles Ives’ followed him. Borg made her way to New York City in the mid-'50s, just in time to hear Charlie Parker perform one of his last shows (she stood outside the club).

In the Big Apple, she met Paul Bley, who would record her first “mature” composition (“O Plus One”). They soon married and, around the same time, she met many of the players who would figure heavily in her life and career, including bassists Steve Swallow and Charlie Haden; second husband and business partner Michael Mantler would enter the picture in relatively short order.

By the end of the '60s, Bley began to draw more heavily on European and European American music, and distanced herself increasingly from free jazz and the aggression she found within in it. She fell for the music of the Beatles and recorded A Genuine Tong Funeral with Gary Burton, who released the album under his own name. Composed by Bley, the music was a risk for Burton but it resulted in him earning major critical and professional accolades and it remains one of Bley’s finest hours.

After Genuine Tong, Bley recorded a series of challenging albums, including the classic 1971 jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill, which features words from Paul Haines and appearances from Jack Bruce, Linda Ronstadt, and former Mothers of Invention member, Don Preston. Beal’s writing on the composition, recording, and release of Escalator Over the Hill carries an extra zeal and one wishes that there were more analysis and detail about the project found here, as following this decidedly original piece from its genesis to its legacy might easily yield a volume of its own.

(The chapter dedicated to Escalator Over the Hill also contains the funniest line in the volume. Describing the seemingly endless hum that occupied the end of the original vinyl release, Beal writes that, on the CD reissue, “…the final drone lasts only about eighteen minutes.”)

The rest of the book chronicles Bley’s continued musical evolution, notes her eventual split with Mantler and her current partnering with Swallow. A thorough discography and bibliography offer readers and listeners plenty of opportunities to learn more about this one-of-a-kind composer. (Bley, Mantler, Swallow, Haden, and others from the inner circle all cooperated with Beal on this volume.)

Ultimately, this work leaves the reader hungry for more and wondering who might take up the task of writing a longer, more detailed Bley biography. Given the passion evident in these pages, Beal seems the ideal candidate.


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