Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow – Life Goes On – ECM Records ECM 2669 085 4826 180-gram vinyl, 56:39 ****1/2:
(Carla Bley – piano; Andy Sheppard – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Steve Swallow – bass)
Carla Bley has been a pivotal force in jazz circles for over five decades. As an instrumentalist (piano, organ), composer, arranger and bandleader, she was part of the free jazz movement in the 1960’s. Her jazz opera (or chronotransduction), Escalator Over The Hill electrified audiences around the world and was a crossover success. Her compositions have been performed by various artists, including Gary Burton, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, Art Farmer and John Scofield. Bley was a founding member of The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. She composed and arranged for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Additional collaborations with Jack Bruce (Cream) and Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) were trend-setting. Her recording career is varied with a significant catalogue of big band music. Her trio work with Andy Sheppard (saxophone) and Steve Swallow (bass) garnered critical raves. Bley’s storied history finds another chapter on her latest release from ECM.
Life Goes On is another insightful album with Sheppard and Swallow (their fourth). Represented in three “micro-suites”,l the album is exquisite in its minimalist approach. The vibrant trio chemistry executes a connective, lyrical symmetry. Some A opens with the 4-part title opus. The first section (“Life Goes On”) begins with a slow left-hand blues vamp by Bley that is quickly joined by bass and tenor saxophone. There is an intrinsic whimsy to this melancholy, as bassist Steve Swallow plays his solo like a guitar. When Sheppard enters, he plays in unison. Then the vibrato-infused run (mostly backed by Swallow) flows with peaceful elegance. When the trio unite, they glow with adroit dynamics. The second movement (“On”) has some classical undertones. It feels dark, but is framed in a lilting resonance. Bley shines on a sparse, haunting solo with an emphasis on notation The depth of feeling is palpable. Sheppard and Swallow also distill the tactile suppleness in their instrumentation. As the suite progresses (“And On”/“And Then One Day”), the energy increases with a transition to 3/4 time signature and restrained intensity. The addition of soprano saxophone expands the jazz/blues motifs and captures a straight ahead vibe. Occasional insertion of a dissonant note and key changes are noteworthy. Bley has a glowing piano run that concludes in a hushed ending.
The next “suite” takes on the idiosyncratic psychology of the 45th American President. “Part I” has a foreboding moodiness as Bley and Swallow interact with precise duo articulation. On “Part II”, Sheppard rejoins his band mates on tenor. His extemporaneous styling envelops the aesthetic with a cinematic pulse that reverberates. Bley’s piano accents are riveting. Bley’s compositional, nuanced observation infuses “Part III”. With a finger-snapping coolness, Bley injects Americana snippets “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”/“You’re A Grand Old Flag”/“Hail To The Chief”), while taking on a complex solo, bringing a greater “swing” resonance and sense of humor. However, a subdued ending represents the inherent menace. The third opus (“Copycat”) resurrects the stellar mechanics and structure of the trio. As Bley and Swallow create an airy, intermingled tapestry on “After You”, Sheppard shines with a tender lead on tenor. Bley and Swallow demonstrate a melodically nuanced rumination. With a playful intro (“Follow The Leader”), the album concludes with the exotic rhythm and jazzy phrasing of “Copycat”. The arrangement is flawless with a steady core and room for Sheppard on soprano to improvise. Bley’s counter-piano is brilliant with coyness and substance.
Life Goes On is a worthy addition to the ECM jazz legacy. The “scaled down” instrumentation is mixed to be expansive. The production is impeccable, and the volume levels are outstanding. While minimal in instrumentation, the music is complex and multi-faceted.
Side A: Life Goes On: Life Goes On; On; And On; And Then One Day
Side B: Beautiful Telephones: I, II, III; Copycat: After You; Follow The Leader; Copycat