Sunday, February 25, 2018

Carla Bley - The Don Palmer Interview

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"I'm just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they're better. They play better, they're smarter, and they can save your ass in a bad situation. If their music falls off the stands, they can make it up. A classical musician, a folk musician, or a rock & roll musician is pretty limited in what they can do to help out the leader. I need all the help I can get."
- Carla Bley

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been listening to Carla Bley’s music for almost 35 years!

It’s as full of surprises today as it was three-and-a-half decades ago when I walked into the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, CA and was confronted by an onslaught from her band's powerful and unexpected sounds.

Her use of instrumentations in unusual combinations reminded me almost immediately of the late Gil Evans’ style of orchestrating.

Carla Bley celebrates The Sound of Surprise in ways that bring new sonorities to the ear and a wry smile to the face.

Sometimes I think she’s sarcastic, if music can ever be said to have such a quality. But I always know that her music is serious and sincere.

There’s no one quite like Carla Bley.

Here’s a great interview/conversation/essay with and about Carla that Don Palmer put together for the August/1984 issue of Down Beat magazine.

My Dinner with Carla
by Don Palmer

"To paraphrase filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, here are two or three things you may want to know about her — Carla Bley that is. Her favorite color is green, even though she says that she doesn't look good in it. She doesn't like official holidays. "When I finish a piece of music, I have a holiday — well, not a holiday, but a celebration." She doesn't like bright, noisy restaurants with Muzak. She felt apprehensive about her first Japanese tour in late May. Her music is facing new assimilationist pressures, and from within no less.

Most of this is the sort of trivia one might expect to get over a dinner with Carla, especially from a rambling conversation at an ill-lit but comfortable Italian restaurant on New York City's Lower East Side. But this last bit of information about Bley's music taking a turn towards the mainstream is surprising. Could Carla Bley, the queen of the avant-garde composers, actually consider compromise after all these years as one of the few contemporary musicians whose work was unique, fresh and funny, and whose compositions helped jazz players add to the vocabulary of improvisation?

From the time she quit school at the age of 15 and took a job in a music store selling sheet music, Carla Bley has blended irreverence with innocence. Her religious family in Oakland did little to stunt that development, but her involvement in the church did leave Bley with a working knowledge of religious and spiritual music. She also claims that a job in her aunt's flower shop in Carmichael, Calif., where she made and placed sprays on caskets, provided some inspiration for her funereal music of later years.

When she left California for New York City in the early '60s, Bley had no problem working as a cigarette girl in jazz clubs before integrating herself into the full-time jazz scene. From 1964 on, Bley was a prime force in the formation and growth of the Jazz Composers Guild, its orchestra and eventually the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, a nonprofit foundation to support the orchestra and commission new works. JCOA spawned another even more ambitious project, the New Music Distribution Service, which was Bley's attempt to provide an outlet and distribution network for new or noncommercial records without depriving musicians of the ownership and control of their music.

Although her current involvement at NMDS is limited to publishing a newspaper every two and a half years, Bley still gets "incredible satisfaction out of it. When we and Mike Mantler started JCOA, we only wanted to write for big orchestras. We never had any gigs, so we had plenty of time left over to tend to business. I did all the stamp licking and envelope stuffing, but now I don't have time to sneeze. When you have so many irons in the fire" — Bley pauses to check the cliche — "Is that the word? You've got to delegate responsibility among people who you hire."

Since the mid-'60s Bley has enjoyed a slow but inexorable climb to the heights of success, especially if measured in jazz terms. She estimates she has written 300 songs and SO scores for her 10-piece band. Bley has performed on dozens of albums, and her own recordings have received far more acclaim than scorn. In addition, Bley's recent albums are distributed by ECM via the Warner Bros, conglomerate, and all her work is available by mail from the Mighty Mouse of alternative music, NMDS. Nonetheless, Bley seems torn by the notoriety and the good fortune that homage through transfiguration is not only hip but acceptable and popular. So maybe the new musical direction is Bley's typical iconoclastic, nose-thumbing response to the times having caught up with her. Or maybe, as Bley states, her new release, Heavy Heart, is about springtime and love.

Either answer coming from Bley the prankster could be a half-truth, but it is unquestionable that Heavy Heart tends toward the sentimental excesses of the New York studio scene rather than a bluesy, quirky reply to love, fulfilled or not. This is not to say that Heavy Heart is as unctuous as David Sancious or as vapidly, technically soulful as David Sanborn, but most of the indelible Bley trademarks have been skillfully manicured or excised. The tunes are still Bley-like, hip and exquisite; the harmonies elongated under the fluid, piping alto of Steve Slagle and the snorting, muscular trombone of Gary Valente (on "Ending It"); the solos and arrangements always take an unusual turn a phrase or two before becoming predictable; and Bley's ethnic sensibility takes the form of Latin lilts and tempo-altering shuffles. In short, Heavy Heart is a light, breezy album without being formulaic, and one which fabricates jazz-pop from evocations of the revived electric bands of Miles and Gil, Marvin Gaye's "Here, My Dear," and assorted sultry, sensuous tunes.

Yet fans of the eccentric Bley, the keyboardist/composer whose work can be rich and zany like Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," shouldn't despair, because her soundtrack for the French film Mortelle Randonnee is less soundtrack and more Bley recording than Heavy Heart. Randonnee finds the imagistic Bley calliope in full swing. Drunken melodies, staggered ensemble passages that are part cacophony, part call-and-response and doleful, even dissonant harmonies abound in a melange of tangos, dirges and mock marches. Like Musique Mecanique and European Tour 1977, Randonnee is energetic, brassy and full of weird twists that'll make you perk up and even cackle.

On the eve of her first Japanese tour, Carla Bley was in a good mood because she "just had a burst of self-confidence about it. The apprehension I feel about Japan could be what I'd feel about anything new, so it might be just fine afterwards."

Bley went on to explain, "In the last year I've become shy of getting on the stage. And, if you figure I've had a band for eight years and for seven of those years I didn't know whether I was onstage or off, it just means I've been made to feel self-conscious recently."

By whom? The audience? Well, have you ever been pelted? 

"Oh yeah, I've been pelted. In France it was tomatoes; in Italy it's cans and apricot pits or half-eaten peaches. That doesn't bother me. I had played the Italian national anthem and was just being irreverent in general. It took people seven years to get used to that, and now they don't throw things."

Alto saxophonist Steve Slagle laughed and added, "Beer cans in Germany, but for no good reason." Bley continues, "And full of beer. I stopped the concert and said, 'I want the guy who threw that up onstage.' The audience ran after him, but he went over a fence. I wouldn't continue until I could pour a can of beer over somebody because that beer had splashed all over us. The promoter offered himself, and I poured an entire can of beer on his head. I love audience participation."

Getting back to the point, Bley blamed the press for making her self-conscious. "They ask me things that I don't even want to mention. They ask me questions that make me wonder why I am doing this, am I strange, do I look funny, am I not qualified?"

Certainly Carla Bley's propensity to stray from the facts, to spin tales, and her willful innocence work at cross purposes for her and the press. She's also said that critics are more interested in personalities than music, which she amended. "I should say that humans like personalities more than music. I'm that way. When a person plays, I don't listen to their notes; I listen to who they are. That's what I mean by personality.

"I think I'm getting to be well known in a wider circle, so that people aren't really music lovers. I think a lot of people who might come to a concert now are sensation seekers, and I can't provide that. I can only provide the music."

As Slagle later explained, Bley's concern over the presentation of her music was not just due to fear. The additional preparation for her Japanese tour had become necessary because Bley and the band discovered that a two-hour set was more powerful and effective than two one-hour sets, and the build-up, tension, and subsequent release, which Bley's music strongly generates for the audience, was dissipated during the intermission. But, in order to play for two hours nonstop, the band has to be "really tight."

Although Bley eschews the notion that she is motivated by a desire to appease her newer and larger audience, she has produced an album that is simpler, more streamlined and accessible than much of her previous work. Heavy Heart should certainly get some radio airplay and attract more listeners, which in turn could make Carla Bley a tad wealthier and even more self-conscious.

Her response? "I didn't know I was gonna make that record. 

About a year after Live, I took the band into the studio, and we made a follow-up album with the pieces I'd written. The recording wasn't good, and I knew it the next day when I listened to it. I think what was wrong was that the live album had worked, and we tried to reproduce it but in a studio with no overdubs. We missed the audience — that's all it could be. I'm not talking about applause,

I'm talking about the breathing that an audience puts into a piece of music.
"If you record in the studio, you have to use a different process; it's a different art form. I'm always thinking, 'I know this,' so I said to myself, 'I know this,' and decided to make a studio album without using the guys in my band. I was going to follow the procedures and start with just the rhythm section and add the other tracks later."

Bley intended to use all studio musicians, but she ended up with her own rhythm section plus percussionist Manolo Badrena and guitarist Hiram Bullock as the add-ons. She also knew that her love for the saxophone dictated that at least one horn had to appear on the album. Her choice was Slagle because he's a "romantic kind of guy." Bley had Slagle come to the session to play the melodies for the rhythm section, but he wanted to play in the main studio with the band instead of being isolated in his booth. The result was that Slagle's guide tracks remained on the recording although initially they were to be erased, with new horn parts dubbed in. Later Bley added more horns, but not before deciding to use her guys "because of sentiment, and they play better." Now she calls her attempt at a studio album half-successful and a "mongrel."

Bley says that she wants to do another studio record, and she even talks about disbanding her group so that she can put more time into the effort. Surprisingly she stated, "I might quit my band in August for financial reasons. The band has been an obsession of mine. I put all my copyright royalties into it, but the band does not make money. It is a losing proposition — any big band is."

Whether from fatigue, momentary disillusionment, or the desire to see if we’ll miss her when she's gone, Bley says that she's even soured some on leading a band. "You should have a band and see what it's like. If you're not an extrovert, it's really hard, particularly if you're not a virtuoso musician. If I could take one brilliant solo or something, and the audience would scream with delight, my presence onstage would mean something. I wrote the music, but why am I even there? I do a couple of hand waving things which I don't do very well, and I play an organ solo that has maybe two or three notes over a period of five minutes. I feel like I should be in a cage with a sign on me that says, 'She wrote the music.'"

Bley seems undaunted by Slagle's boast that she's a great leader because she gives musicians the freedom to express themselves within a framework. Like the great bandleaders such as Mingus, Ellington, and Basie, Bley knows how to write for and elicit strong performances from her soloists. But she'll accept no comparison between her playing and that of the other great minimalists of the keyboards.

"Ellington always had some little thing he played on the piano that was startling and wonderful. I really should try to figure out a cameo in the middle of the night, where I play something that I prepared in advance and was real flashy. I would love to be flashy, but I hate to prepare in advance. I couldn't repeat myself two nights in a row because I have an aversion to saying the same thing or playing the same thing. But next month I'll play the same set every night. I don't know if it'll happen, but I'm planning to do that."

Though Bley is obviously no Cecil Taylor or Oscar Peterson chops-wise, nor is her economical playing as skillful as Monk, Basie or Ellington, her brief and infrequent solos are expressive. On the late Clifford Thornton's The Gardens of Harlem, Bley plays the introduction to "Gospel Ballade," and her halting style conjures a lumber camp/whorehouse pianist playing the blues for the sanctified.

Bley claims that she has no direct influences on her writing or playing. "I just hear something and it sticks. Anything I like or hate comes out in the music. I've never studied any kind of music, and even if I were to attempt to duplicate something, I'd fail horribly." She pauses, gives an aw-schucks laugh and concedes, "Okay, fail beautifully."

She continues by describing her technique. "When I do a solo and when it's good, there's a word for every note I play. I speak the solos while I play. I played an organ solo on 'Heavy Heart' [the title tune], and there's a word for every note. They're all silly words, ordinary words, corny words, so I'd never tell you what they were.

"I'm just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they're better. They play better, they're smarter, and they can save your ass in a bad situation. If their music falls off the stands, they can make it up. A classical musician, a folk musician, or a rock & roll musician is pretty limited in what they can do to help out the leader. I need all the help I can get."

Not only does Bley think jazz musicians are better, but she finds classical musicians are snobby, because they think there's only one way to play. Nonetheless, she had nothing but praise for the radio orchestra in Koln, Germany, where she had just performed with fellow composers Michael Mantler and Mike Gibbs. "It's a good orchestra, and the string players aren't snobby. They played right on the beat. You usually put your hand down, and they come in a few minutes later, so I was trying to match the time of the orchestra by playing real late. At the end they were matching me."

How long does it take you to finish a piece for jazz musicians? "Two months. First I write a lot of material, then I start gettin' rid of all of it. Then I've got a rough copy, and I start working on a score. That takes a lot of time, and then I have to copy the parts.

"I just wrote a new piece, and the way it happened is interesting. Five days before Marvin Gaye died, I wrote this piece that sounded just like Marvin Gaye, but I didn't want a piece like that. It was great, but it was in a field I wanted to leave behind me since I had done the Heavy Heart album. It's a bass solo first, for Steve Swallow because he's always raving about Marvin Gaye and says that's where he learned his phrasing. It's for the 10-piece band, but the bass has the melody and the solo. There are no other soloists, which means that I get to play the bass line all the way through on my synthesizer. That's more fun than I've ever had. I think I want to be a bass player."”

Recorded in performance at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam in 2009, the following video features Mike Abene's arrangement of Carl Bley's "Syndrome" as performed by the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw.

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