Photo by Mark Sheldon
There were many Carla Bleys and in the UK we were fortunate enough to see most of them in concert. Quite simply, she was a gloriously unique artist from ‘The Genuine Tong Funeral’ that she wrote for Gary Burton and before that the extraordinary Jazz Composers Orchestra.
She gathered an extraordinary group of people for the ‘opera’ Escalator Over The Hill’ that she co-wrote with Paul Haines and that they called a ‘chronotransduction’. Jazz could not always contain the questing spirit of Carla. Jack Bruce, Julie Driscoll, Linda Ronstadt, Sheila Jordan, Paul Motian, Paul Jones, Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry.
Her verbal playful sense of humour, not always strong in jazz musicians, was a mixture of the whimsical and gently satirical: It took audiences at her concerts sometime to decode if she was simply sending them up. The best example of the wit and humour is the album that she did with Nick Mason of Pink Floyd ‘Fictitious Sports’. The bizarre witty lyrics and the jaunty tunes are a delight.
One of Carla’s important achievements is that she has gained artistic freedom and real independence by recording, publishing and distributing her work through her own WATT label since 1974. Mingus had his own label for a short time but no one has equalled Bley’s achievement in this area. Bley is reported as saying: ‘I feel proud and sort of like a shining example, mainly because I’m independent. I don’t belong to a stable. I’m not a pet of the recording industry. I put out my own records. We book our own band. I have my publishing company. Everything I do is totally controlled by me. I’ve never had to compromise one bit.’ Her website, like her, was witty irreverent.
Nino Rota inspired Carla and she arranged the music from 8 ½ for a Hal Willner album. Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ became a feature for Gary Valente. Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso was played frequently. Carla introducing it at Bracknell said that she had ‘changed it around a little’.
Carla had a heart that was exactly in the right place. Not given to direct political statements, her work with Charlie Haden’s Music Liberation Orchestra throughout its life was where she composed and arranged even after the death of Haden. The political message of the heart-on-sleeve orchestra and its subsequent manifestations has often seemed controversial especially in the conservative parts of the USA. Bley has written and arranged over thirty pieces for the orchestra. Exhibiting sympathy with revolutionary groups with songs from the Spanish Civil war and music from the Sandinista’s struggles and Haden, the evergreen ‘We shall Overcome’. were written with sincerity and played with fervour, The album ‘The Ballad Of the Fallen’ contained Carla’s arrangement of the piece ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated.’
Frequently denying that she was a good pianist, Carla often seemed as though she was thoughtfully picking out the notes carefully. In the later years with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow she pared her work down to the bare bones so that pieces like Utviklingssang, Lawns and Ida Lupino were given an extra dimension of beauty by the economy.
The concert at the Roundhouse in 1981 was a highlight. Not necessarily all jazz but nevertheless entertaining with drummer D Sharp singing ‘I Hate To Sing’ and Gary Valente playing magnificently lung burstingly on ‘The lord Is Listenin’ To Ya, Hallelujah!’. The churchy composition is one of the best pieces in the whole of the Bley oeuvre. A few years later Valente revelled in the ‘Who Will Rescue You?’ at a concert in Hackney. Carla used Valente in the way that Ellington used Tricky Sam Nanton.
Carla’s venture into almost MOR resulted in the albums ‘Heavy Heart’ and ‘Night-glo’. The concert In London by this group was supported by music students under the tutelage of the composer and teacher Gavin Bryars. They sang and played some of Carla’s early songs and Carla remarked that they sounded more like Carla than she did.
One personal highlight was the interview that I did with Carla in the backroom at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. She was very tired and gracious after the evening concert, and she spoke very directly about her life and the way that writers had tried to explain her. She had some interesting opinions: she was not overly fond of Duke Ellington but admired Basies’ reticence both as man and as a pianist. She hoped that the BBC would record the work that she had done with school children. They didn’t, just one of the many opportunities that BBC missed to record major artists.
The death of any jazz artist is an occasion for sadness, the death of Carla Bley is particularly sad because there was more, every album, every tour gave us something new, something different. Increasingly, she will be viewed as one of the greatest, innovative jazz artists because of the range of her achievements. Her radical originality was more admired in Europe than it was in her own country. She was the epitome of the sound of surprise.