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Music Review: Carla Bley – The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu

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A few months ago, we bemoaned the loss of a quality modern jazz composer in Paul Nash and noted how it seems we are well past the heyday of melodists of large-form jazz. Oh my, how did I ever forget about the still-thriving Carla Bley?

Carla has been one of the most the most unique and consistent stylists of jazz compositions ever since her first husband Paul Bley started recording her songs in the late fifties, "Ida Lupino" being one of the more notable ones. But she was destined for much more than providing material for Paul's piano trio settings and soon found her works covered by other notables like George Russell, Jimmy Guiffre, Art Farmer and Gary Burton.

Her stature grew further in the early seventies as she took on more ambitious projects like the stunning chaos of 1971's Escalator Over The Hill and Charlie Haden's opus of jazz protest music, The Liberation Music Orchestra. Since then, she has been involved in a dizzying array of projects ranging from piano/bass duets with master electric bassist and long-time companion Steve Swallow to writing for and leading full-blown orchestras. All the while, she's covered and blended styles ranging from experimental big-band to rock. One of the more interesting side roads she took was a six-month stint in former Cream member Jack Bruce's band alongside ex-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor.
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Lately, Bley has focused more on traditional small combos. A few years ago she formed a nice little quartet dubbed The Lost Chords, which included her on piano, Swallow on electric bass, the Brit Andy Sheppard on saxes and Billy Drummond on drums. That association brought forth an album by the same name back in '04. But at the subtle encouragement of Sheppard, Paolo Fresu was added to the band and The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu is the result.

Fresu is quite possibly the heir apparent to Enrico Rava as Italy's premier trumpet player. He is blessed with a warm, lyrical tone that approximates Miles Davis' Gil Evans days without replicating it. Combined with the similarly-minded Sheppard, Bley had the right horn section for her small-ensemble compositions.

Bley's composing style typically utilizes wit, quirkiness and drama all wrapped up into one. Those are the kind of attributes that appear in Find Paolo Fresu. Carla's primary method of carrying out this task this time is through use of ostinatos that reveal and transform progressively at each repetition. The compositions still have an orchestral feel to it and the band undertakes them ever so mindful of the melody and enhances it as much as possible while remaining creative within their own instruments. The result is a band that is not your conventional jazz quintet; it's almost like a pocket orchestra with the nimbleness of a bop combo.

This is especially true in the six-section piece informally called "The Banana Quintet." The first section, "One Banana" starts out solemnly with Fesu and Sheppard engaging in a soft-form call and response before Fresu takes over with a pretty, thoughtful solo and followed by a different musical phrase featuring an astonishingly beautiful high-register bass solo by Swallow.

"Four" (not the Miles song) reveals more of Bley's noted humor. The first time I listened to this piece I couldn't help but think how Bley's circular blues-inflected riff sounded coincidentally similar to that thick guitar riff in the slower, plodding section of the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from Abbey Road. Near the end of the piece Bley suddenly quotes the Beatles directly and intently for two repetitions in two different keys before going off of it entirely and concluding the song.

Some themes are reycled, but in different forms. For instance, "Five Banana" borrows some from "One Banana" but with a more uptempo pace. "Two Banana," "Three Banana" and "Four," meanwhile, are all tied together by the blues.

The whole "Banana" suite is followed by three distinct songs. The first of these, "Liver Of Life" the gently strutting piece written as a showcase for Fresu's highly lyrical horn, as well as Sheppard's. "Death Of Superman/Dream Sequence #1 – Flying" is a leftover from a de-commissioned project that tabbed Bley to write a piece commemorating Superman actor Christopher Reeves. Swallow makes his bass sound just like a softly plucked acoustic guitar on this somber tone poem.

The set concludes with a previously recorded Bley tune, a lively straight-bop rendition of "Ad Infinitum" that allows the horn players to stretch out a little more than on the rest of the album.

Immaculately recorded in France and produced by Bley and Swallow, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu is another leg on the long musical adventure of Carla Bley. It's an adventure that has taken listeners to so many interesting places over the decades. And today's release by Bley reveals no indication that her ample supply of new ideas are close to being exhausted.

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