During the ’70s and ’80s, Carla Bley released albums on such an infrequent basis that they were seen as events. In most cases, as people get older, their productivity slows down. With Bley, the opposite has been true. As the years have gone by, her recording pace has only increased. This is merely an observation by the way, for her music has remained as fascinating as ever. In fact, her latest Trios is one of the most intriguing recordings I have heard this year.
The concept behind Trios is deceptively simple. The disc contains six Bley compositions, all performed in the trio format. The trio on each track just happens to be that of Bley (piano), Andy Sheppard (tenor and soprano saxophones), and Steve Swallow (bass). There has always been an element of creative fun in everything I have heard by Bley, and Trios is no exception. These are all new interpretations of compositions that have been previously recorded, some in vastly different arrangements.
The opening “Utviklingssang” is an excellent example. The Norwegian title translates to “Development Song,” and first appeared on her brilliant Social Studies album back in 1981. That album was really my introduction to her music, and the nine-piece group version of “Utviklingssang” was a major highlight. Swallow appeared on it, and he and Bley re-recorded the track for Duets in 1988. The third release of the tune was on 4 x 4 (1999), with Shepherd as one of the sax players in the octet. Call it personal preference, but I will probably always choose the Social Studies version as my favorite, but this one is excellent as well.
If it seems that going back 32 years is a long time, as is the case with “Utviklingssang,” that is nothing compared to the second track on Trios. “Vashkar” first appeared on Carla’s then-husband Paul Bley’s 1963 album Footloose. It is a very nice piece of music here on Trios, but if you want to hear a truly radically different take on it, check out the one on Emergency! (1969) from Tony Williams Lifetime.
I mentioned the term “creative fun” earlier in regards to Bley’s music, and one of the best examples of this is “Les Trois Lagons (d’apres Henri Matisse).” The backstory of this 15-minute, tri-part piece is kind of involved, but it sure is interesting. It was commissioned by the Grenoble Jazz Festival, and the idea was for her to pick out plates from Henri Matisse’s book Jazz. She chose three, all called “Lagons,” and this suite is based on her musical interpretations of them. The premiere of the piece was in 1996 with this very trio, but was also later released on 4 x 4.
“Wildlife” is also a three-part suite, comprising “Horns,” “Paws Without Claws,” and “Sex With Birds.” The original version of it appeared on Nght-Glo (1985), and the synthesizer used on it was very ‘80s. I was not a big fan of that album, and would say that of the six cuts on Trios, this new version shows the most improvement over what was previously available.
The final piece is “The Girl Who Cried Champagne,” which is yet another three-part suite. Bley and Swallow have been musical and romantic partners for many years now, and the title of this one has to do with a comment Swallow made to her once. Their little ritual is to celebrate the completion of a composition with a glass of champagne. It seems that sometimes Carla has cried “Champagne!” prematurely often enough for it to be like the girl who cried “Wolf.” It is kind of a cute inside story that they have shared with us about the genesis of the title, but the piece itself is quite enjoyable on its own terms. “The Girl Who Cried Champagne” previously appeared on Sextet (1986), and Fleur Carnivore (1989). Fleur Carnivore was recorded live in Denmark in 1988 by the 14-member Big Carla Bley Band.
When an artist goes back to revisit former triumphs, one wonders if they have run out of new things to say. That is definitely not the case with Carla Bley. One of the things I love about jazz is the fact that there is no expiration date. Not for the music, and not for the artists. Trios is a wonderful collection of sounds. There are ballads, be-bop, and straight no-chaser jazz passages all over it. Much like The Steve Swallow Quintet’s recent Into the Woodwork, it is what jazz radio should be playing today. It is contemporary, yet acknowledges the rich history of the music all at once. Trios is a marvelous album.