Carla Bley at 80

Photo by Klaus Muempher
Photo by Klaus Muempher

As a pianist, Carla Bley plays exactly the right amount of notes.
Needless to say they’re also the right note choices, except when they are gorgeously and intentionally wrong. Her hands seem to fall upon these keys as if discovering them or like they were quite obviously the only ones worth considering.
I remember Bley’s comments last year, upon accepting an NEA Jazz Masters award:

“I asked my father, ‘Where does the music come from?’ He told me, ‘A composer wrote it.’ And I said, ‘I would like to do that.’ So I wrote hundreds of notes and he told me, ‘No, no, this is much to hard for me to play. Get rid of most of these notes.’ And so that was my first lesson.”

As a composer, Bley inspires from her fellow musicians a similarly correct sense of proportion—something beyond restraint or economy, and implying a grand sense of overall design, of form one can live satisfyingly within.
It’s not as if her music sounds perfect or that it seeks or achieves equilibrium. No, Bley’s music has always involved subtle subterfuge a gently off-kilter sensibility. It’s dramatic as well, but sneakily so, in ways that lure, not lurch, you into deep feeling.
Celebrating her 80th birthday with a brief and intimate concert at Manhattan’s Steinway Hall, Bley exuded a child’s wonder and an elder’s wisdom, both qualities coexisting in elegant balance, just as, say, dissonance and consonance do in her music.
Two of the pieces Bley peformed on Wednesday with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow (the latter, her partner in life as well as music for the past 25 years) were drawn from her finely crafted and yet casually charming new CD “Andando el Tiempo” (ECM).

photo by Caterina di Perri / ECM Records

She brought along a new piece too, “Copycat,” the piano part for which spilled across nine pages of sheet music, she later explained during a post-performance interview. She shows no signs of slowing down. She mentioned leaving soon for Germany, where she will premiere a new composition for orchestra and boys choir.
On Wednesday, Bley’s music wasn’t tidy but it presented a rare sense of clarity, aided by the acoustics of Steinway Hall. The music moved with a logic and flow that is solely hers, and that she has honed over the decades. Which is not to say that she occupied the spotlight. Swallow displayed an uncanny knack for coaxing perfectly shaped tones from his 5-string electric bass, as he usually does, and sometimes during solos evoked classical guitar. Sheppard dug deeply into the gospel and blues feel that Bley’s compositions ofetn invite, but never with complete abandon, and that was a good and positive thing; during one piece, he manipulated split tones and the air that flowed beyond his tone  in astonishing ways.
” I didn’t want to be strange all my life,” Bley said at one point during the public interview, which involved the full trio.
To which Swallow added, “Her identity asserts itself despite her best intentions.”
Bley’s music, which has settled into a more stately presentation but not settled down exactly, was never really that strange. Yet it has always offered the rarest of pleasures.

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