Life Goes On
This may mark the first time we’ve covered an ECM album on these pages and although this is the third in the series for Bley/Sheppard/Swallow trio, this writer confesses to have only heard this one. The renowned improvisational pianist/composer Carla Bley is 80 and bassist Steve Swallow, who is regarded as one of the most highly lyrical, richly toned electric bassists, will be an octogenarian in October. That leaves English robustly-toned, melodically nuanced saxophonist Andy Sheppard as the kid in the trio, at 63. These jazz veterans have a deep connection and are now marking 26 years of recording together as a trio. Life Goes On is their fourth recording. As we mention terms like improvisational or avant-garde, one likely thinks of endless meandering solos, back to the head, and then more solos. Yet, this trio’s approach is spare, minimalist, and casual where each player works off a thematic idea. Bley plays chords or single notes, eschewing the long runs. It’s about creating a mood and a texture.
Bley describes it this way, “We’ve learned to breathe together when we play. I hear our voices in my mind’s ear as I compose for us. I especially relish the conversational flow the trio format allows. We’re essentially a chamber music ensemble, and this allows me to write music for us free of bombast and exaggeration. Music stripped down to its basic elements. This format also demands that, as plyers, we improvise in the character of each particular song, which is both a challenge, and, on a good night, a great satisfaction.” While it’s clear the musicians are intently focused on each other, the final product is a calming rewarding listen.
The album consists of three multi-part works, serving as loosely connected ideas. They open with the first work and title track as Bley sets up bluesy chords that Sheppard and Swallow play off in a call and response mode. “On” follows in the vein of Thelonious Monk, one of Bley’s major influences. This one is built around a steadily declining choral pattern, and, like Monk, it has dashes of humor. “And On” is a great showcase for Sheppard’s tenor as many of the lines seem familiar, calling up perhaps segments of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” The fourth movement, “And Then One Day” finds Sheppard on soprano, dialoguing with Swallow’s electric bass. The tune begins as a tango and then settles into rhythm, again with some familiar melodic passages in minor key. There’s as much free form as jazz tradition in this first part.
“Beautiful Telephones” actually owes to POTUS 45 and his propensity to label so many things “beautiful.” These pieces are solemn, oft-noir like. Bley and Swallow begin as a duo and as the piece unfolds, you’ll hear a series of quotes including “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle.” When Sheppard joins in segments two and three, it’s another great example of group interplay as all stay in unison for each idea, not an easy feat given this explanation from as “a piece where things get excited and them impatient and then excited again and then change. Nothing stays the same because, with the attention span of the President, we have to quickly change the music too.’
The third suite, “Copycat” is a twist on the term – the notion of call and response as each player doesn’t merely replicate the other’s idea but adds new commentary and/or elaborates in game-like fashion. Sheppard again switches to soprano in the third movement of this suite. This trio, together for over twenty years, can insightfully anticipate each other’s moves while as listeners we sense an unpredictability. That dynamic works beautifully whether it’s the mystery conjured by a single note or the engaging dialogue among the three. It’s enticing enough to consider the others they’ve made, especially the other two in this series- 2013’s Trios and the poetic 2016 Andando El Tiempo.
- Jim Hynes