In addition to her prodigious output of composing, performing and recording in a wide variety of settings, 81-year-old Carla Bley has been playing in this trio with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard for some 25 years. This is their first studio date since 2016’s Andando el Tiempo*, which was preceded by 2013’s critically acclaimed Trios. Theirs is the kind of musical relationship that, when it’s right, is capable of producing astounding results. And that’s what we have here, in this deceptively simple recording of three musical suites.
The first of these suites is “Life Goes On.” Its four movements are titled “Life Goes On,” “On,” “And On,” “And Then One Day,” and the music itself is just a witty as the title. Part I is a slow blues in four built around a repeated figure of two half notes played by Bley’s left hand, slow as the pendulum on a grandfather clock. A simple and witty melody played by bass, tenor and Bley’s right hand winds around that two-note motif. After a somber second movement, more neo-classical than jazz, the third returns to an upbeat blues built around Sheppard’s tossed-off improvisation on a thoughtful, dynamic melody on tenor, the piece moved forward largely by Swallow’s uncanny bass. He was one of the first to switch permanently from double bass to the electric bass guitar, but the sound he gets and his style of play remain highly influenced by the acoustic instrument. For the fourth they take a step sideways into a melody and key, indeed a whole setting, that’s much different. Bley returns to the two-note clockwork left hand but mostly adds chordal colors with her right as Sheppard’s soprano floats over the intricate piano-bass counterpoint. His soprano here reminds me of Paul Desmond’s alto, such is its sweet and cool sound on what turns into a jauntily urbane melody for the second half of this lengthy piece, which eventually finds Bley introducing unexpected dissonances in Monk mode as the whole thing slowly unwinds and comes to a peaceful end.
“Beautiful Telephones,” its title reportedly taken from a US president’s first observation on entering the Oval Office, opens with a somber, Satie-like piano piece, through a nearly freestyle tenor tune, to a witty conclusion in the somewhat sarcastically patriotic third movement, with its snippets of old American flag-wavers like “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”
The “Copycat” suite brings out improvisation of a high order from these three. Sheppard plays tenor on the first and soprano on the third, with Bley on solo piano on the brief “Copycat II” that provides a brief intro to the theme that the trio explores fully on “Copycat III.” Both are utterly delightful jazz tunes, as all three take turns in the lead, improvising around the melody as one or both of the others playfully vamp. Sometimes they land on the same note or phrase at the same time through anticipation and long association, at one point Swallow lays out for a bar to hear where Bley might be going, then nails his entry in perfect synch with her line, and within another few bars they both jump an octave at the same moment.
Can you tell I like Life Goes On? Essential, elemental yet sophisticated jazz doesn’t get much better. Listen to the title track on various streaming platforms at this link.
*Corrected on 11 February 2020 to add reference to the 2016 release. Look for a review of that 2016 release soon! – eds.