Healing Power –The Music of Carla Bley
Renowned jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley is one of the most covered composers in jazz over the past six decades. Bley’s groups and those of her life partner, bassist and composer Steve Swallow, have featured such iconic names as Gary Burton, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, and guitarists Pat Metheny and Mick Goodrick. Guitarist Steve Cardenas joined these great names a little later, after the turn in the millennium, and played in two bands that included Carla Bley, thus his affinity for her music. This is not the first recording for this trio, each sharing equal billing as you see above as each is a leader elsewhere, with bassist Ben Allison and celebrated JLCO reedist (tenor, soprano, clarinet) Ted Nash joining Cardenas in this Carla Bley project. Together they have explored the music of guitarist Jim Hall, performed the music of West Side Story, with the recording Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs in 2018, and have taken much sustenance for the groundbreaking drum-less trios of the late Jimmy Giuffre.
For this session the trio convened at a studio in rural Pennsylvania, intent on recording material form early in Bley’s career as well as less covered later pieces. Bley’s ballad “Ida Lupino,” one of her most well-known, begins with Nash on tenor and Cardenas alternating melody and counter lines with Allison’s bass centering a steady line between the two. “Donkey” is one that Bley never recorded. Nash enters with strong and jagged tenor phrases, echoed by Cardenas before Nash rides atop Cardenas’ comping, soon passing the lead to the guitarist who delivers short, bluesy bursts with the theme always in reach. Each makes a statement and the animated exchanges in the latter section are impressively tight. “And Now, The Queen” is looser, not tied to a specific tempo, as the trio gets into a more explorative mode, that yields colorful harmonics between clarinet and guitar.
“Ictus’” first appeared on 1965’s Bley Quintet album Barrage (ESP Disk). Nash and Allison approach the piece with blindingly fast runs while Cardenas enters unhurriedly with a tremolo drenched guitar solo. “Lawns” is one of Bley’s most well-known songs of the ‘80s and its appealing ballad melody is rendered faithfully and deliberately, with Cardenas’ clean guitar tone set against Nash’s tenor. “Ad Infinitum” has a challenging 6/8 form and in indelible triumphant-like melody that once stated, gets turned topsy turvy in dynamic solos from Nash on soprano and Cardenas as they navigate tricky changes. Allison steps forward just when the momentum begins to slow, and the trio gradually builds back. “Othos De Gato” is a somber slow bossa marked by Nash’s full toned clarinet and dark chords from Cardenas. “King Korn” was originally penned for Sonny Rollins, and the trio digs in playfully with Nash choosing the soprano rather the tenor with Cardenas right in step with the counter. Allison gets his say as well both alone and in brief exchanges with his trio mates. The title track closes, a soulful tune from Bley’s ‘80s catalog with Nash on tenor stating the melody before handing to Cardenas who delivers his bluesiest solo yet as this one simmers nicely.
This passage in the liners is too appealing to overlook. After sending the mastered tracks to Steve Swallow, they received this response – “After listening to HEALING POWER intently for several minutes, Carla, as is her custom, condensed a paragraph of response into two words: “That’s me.” Not “I wrote that” or “that’s my music.” I know nobody more careful with words (or notes) than Carla, and “that’s me” speaks volumes. She writes to serve improvisors, and to receive such service in return is a dream come true.” As stated also in the liners, it was a dream come true for the trio as well. They approach it with a balance of reverence and eagerness to put their own stamp on Bley’s terrific writing. That, and its acoustic purity will have you coming back repeatedly.
- Jim Hynes