Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow – Trios – ECM

by | Nov 3, 2013 | Jazz CD Reviews

Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow – Trios – ECM 2287, 56:14 [9/10/13] ****:

(Carla Bley – piano; Andy Sheppard – tenor and soprano saxophone; Steve Swallow – bass)

Pianist Carla Bley has a few firsts with her new trio album, the simply titled, nearly hour-long Trios. This is the first time any of her recordings has been issued directly under the ECM label, although previous outings have been licensed by ECM through WATT, co-founded in 1972 by Bley and trumpeter Michael Mantler. This is also the first time Bley has tapped an outside producer for one of her albums: ECM’s Manfred Eicher was involved in the CD sequencing and the selection of material. Also, this is the first time in almost 20 years that Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow have issued music as a threesome: they were last heard on 1995’s live document Songs with Legs.

With Trios, longstanding Bley fans may feel a smidgeon of déjà vu, because Bley’s five pieces (three of which are three-part suites), have been done by Bley in various configurations on stage and/or in the studio, with one exception: Bley finally tackles one of her best known compositions, “Vashkar,” for the first time.

One of Eicher’s ideas was to commence with “Utviklingssang,” (Norwegian for “Development Song”). The melancholy track first appeared on Bley’s 1981 LP Social Studies with a nine-piece ensemble, then was re-recorded for Bley and Swallow’s 1988 Duets release, and again on 1999’s 4 x 4, with an octet. Bley states she would typically play such a gradual tune after a few fast numbers, or as an encore. Eicher’s choice to use it as an opener is inspired. “Utviklingssang” starts with Swallow’s warm, introductory electric bass, which creates a wintery and watery ambiance, like watching ice drift down a cold river. Sheppard and Bley then enter, with Sheppard’s tenor sax resonant and evocative, at times, of soprano saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s icy tone. The elegiac core remains throughout the eight-minute piece, with an indirect melody which is bare and sometimes low in perceptibility, but never excised. That’s followed by “Vashkar,” which dates from the early ‘60s: first taped by Paul Bley for his 1963 record Footloose!; and then reimagined by both Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana. Carla Bley’s reading is different than any previous ones. The seven-minute cut centers on a mild, nearly-droning modal Middle Eastern melody. Swallow and Bley puckishly duet for the first 90 seconds, and then Sheppard’s soprano sax flits in and floats around Bley, as she slowly browses in and out of the main theme, and then Swallow and Sheppard hypnotically riff together: bass and sax duets don’t get much better than this. As the three players elegantly and gracefully intermingle, the result is poetic.

The rest of the program consists of extended tripartite suites. The lengthiest is Les Trois Lagons (d’après Henri Matisse): Plate XVII, Plate XVIII, Plate XIX, so-called since the multi-tiered showcase was influenced by Matisse’s1947 book of paper cutouts entitled, appropriately, Jazz. Unfortunately, the Matisse artwork is not in the 20-page insert booklet. The suite was originally commissioned by the Grenoble Jazz Festival: Bley was asked to choose plates from Matisse’s book (the cutouts were called lagons, and the suite comprises musical interpretations of book plates which display three Matisse cutouts). The piece premiered in 1996 with this trio, and was later included on 4 x 4. Here, the trio stretches out and demonstrates many moods. On the first musical tributary, Bley begins with quiet piano, then the trio goes into a bop-leaning area (a highlight of this section is a brief sax/bass duet), where Bley’s tongue-in-cheek playfulness comes to the fore with her Monk-inclined vamps, which elicit a nostalgic underpinning. The second section is downcast and dampened and mirrors the subdued blues and greens in Matisse’s “Plate XVIII”; Sheppard’s revealing nuances are a standout. The third part again conveys Bley’s humorous subtlety but maintains a sensitivity which hints at the low-key lightheartedness in Matisse’s “Plate XIX,” which has vine-like and centipede-esque patterns.

“Wildlife: Horns, Paws without Claws, Sex with Birds” initially turned up in an octet form on 1985’s Night-Glo. Bley’s fresh transformation deletes synth, horns, electric guitar and an easy-listening arrangement. Sheppard and Swallow impart a magnified melody, while Bley doubles chords and injects melodic fills, thus the threesome carry what a larger band engaged in during the earlier adaptation. The tempo eventually shifts and gets active and more complex, but the impression of intimacy and penetrating focus never disappears. The playing is phenomenal, particularly when the trio manipulates the harmonic space. The closing track, “The Girl Who Cried Champagne,” formerly surfaced on Sextet (1986), and Fleur Carnivore (1989). The title refers to Bley’s celebratory ritual of having a glass of champagne at the completion of a composition. Swallow has commented Bley has cried “Champagne!” prematurely so often it’s become the equivalent of Aesop’s fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” While this number echoes Bley’s softly-seasoned sensibility, it also has some of her attractive quirkiness, not so much in the open, but in her discreet keyboard chords and slightly sauntering stride, reiterated in different ways by Sheppard and Swallow. This rendition preserves an appealingly cool essence, and the third part brings to mind the permeating Latin groove from the 1986 version. Happily, Bley removes her nearly lounge-style organ sound, and overall, this arrangement is an intuitively better rendering. As is standard on ECM projects, Trios is visually and sonically fantastic. The performances were captured in April, 2012 at Lugano, Switzerland’s Auditorio Radiotelevisione. The meticulous engineering has a clear, intimate and fittingly live feel, which imbues the five pieces with the trio’s personality, their detailed instrumental touches, and a rich aural tapestry which accentuates sax, piano and bass. The accompanying booklet has an apt minimalist design replete with black and white photographs and straightforward credits with no liner notes. There is a cardboard slipcase which encloses the CD jewel box.

TrackList: Utviklingssang; Vashkar; Les Trois Lagons (d’après Henri Matisse): Plate XVII, Plate XVIII, Plate XIX; Wildlife: Horns, Paws without Claws, Sex with Birds; The Girl Who Cried Champagne: Parts 1, 2, 3.

—Doug Simpson

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