Not even the heavens could keep jazz titan Carla Bley away at the Cistern on Friday night. A prolific jazz composer and musician who has been perfecting her craft for more than 60 years, Bley’s compact trio delivered an outsize, if curtailed, performance flanked by Randolph Hall last night.
Steve Swallow, Bley’s longtime collaborator and significant jazz bassist in his own right, put the moderate-sized crowd on notice from the get. Lest you thought that the slight, 82-year-old Bley was here just to rattle off a few classics, Swallow clued us in that the band had just returned from recording a new record in southern Switzerland.
The rich, emotive sounds that come from the Bley trio’s stage shows are all the more impressive when you realize that almost every bit of the music is written on the page. This is not the unstructured improvisational jazz that the genre is often pigeonholed as.
[image-1] “We know more about what’s going to happen when we walk onstage than many other jazz bands,” Bley told us in an interview before the festival.
After the opening, “Copycats,” Bley stood and dryly introduced “Beautiful Telephones,” which could be the perfect name for any abstract jazz tune. But in fact, she went on, it’s named for President Donald Trump’s superlative impression of White House phones in January 2017. (“These are the most beautiful phones I’ve ever used in my life,” is the full quote.)
As Bley, Swallow, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard navigated through the first movement (structured, remember?), we hear a wandering and unresolved introduction, with the bass coming through with more of a soft, classical guitar sound. Trying to capture the feeling, my notes include the thought, “Welp, here we are,” a quote that I would imagine could be attributed to anyone apprehensive about the changes in the White House in January 2017 — fearless leader included.
In the song’s second act, the character(s) in this Bley composition sound like they have found their way around the place.
A bit more of the confident, but equally-foreboding wandering continues, with Bley dropping breadcrumbs of state fair standards, including the national anthem, Hail to the Chief, and Yankee Doodle. Topping it off, the fanfare was finished with a delicate, hilarious on-the-nose Sinatra riff, “I did it my way.” Naturally.
I can only imagine the creative pain required for someone like Bley to slip into such square melodies, but consider the subject matter.
Alas, the rains were to come shortly after, the stagehands rushed on to tell a disappointed Bley. “Oh, that’s a sad way to finish.”
With some quick negotiation, she got two more minutes.
“This next song is called ‘Sex with Birds.'”