REVIEW: Carla Bley Trio feat. Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard at Ronnie Scott's

Carla Bley at Ronnie Scott's.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved

Carla Bley Trio featuring Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard
(Ronnie Scott's, 17th July 2106; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

At the heart of the Carla Bley's trio of over twenty years standing, with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard, lies a sophisticated equilibrium, which was articulated, not only musically, but also visually. Each musician sits or stands evenly spaced across the stage at Ronnie's, with several pages of Bley's complex scores constantly in view on the music stand.

Swallow was seated centrally with his 5-string bass, custom built by Harvey Citron, to all appearances a specially-crafted guitar with an extended neck. Sheppard standing to the right, exchanged tenor and soprano saxes to suit the demands of Bley's repertoire, and Bley herself, elegant in black with signature geometric blond bob, imposing and exacting in both appearance and her role as the trio's leader, was seated to the left.

The whole of the trio's new ECM album, Andando el Tiempo ('The Passing of Time') was visited during their two one-hour sets, augmented by a sprinkling of new compositions, including Copycat, their opener, premiered in New York at the album's launch concert in May, with several of their favourites including the breezily jazzy Ups and Downs and Baby Baby from the Duets (1988) album by Bley and Swallow.

The deceptive simplicity of Bley's intimately-scaled compositions masks their whittled-down refinement, which came through in the continual games of hide and seek with their main themes, as they were subsumed in variations and extemporisations, only to return to the fore when it seemed that they had all but disappeared.

Bley's distinctive, laser-sharp piano style complemented Swallow's and Sheppard's virtuosic musicianship, as she led them through thoughtfully constructed duet passages, solo interludes and then back to the full trio, underscoring the clarity of her composer's vision - the quality that has spurred her on in to her ninth decade, and was recognised in her National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Award last year.

Bley lightly deconstructed Mendelssohn's Wedding March in Naked Bridges / Diving Brides (her gift to Sheppard and his recent bride) deep within its engagingly left-of-centre phrasing that gave Sheppard a platform for his delicately cascading fluency on soprano. Swallow added a deliberately acoustic edge to his melodic approach on the 5-string, which compares interestingly to the more electric sound of his bass as recorded on the album – and his solo improvised spot in the recently-penned Tricycle was the perfect vehicle for his absorbing brand of fluid understatement.

The movingly melancholic intensity of the new album's three movement title track was emphasised in the urgency of Sheppard's warm tenor delivery, which also permeated the gospel-drenched flavour of The Lord is Listening to You. Hallelujah!, and Monk's Misterioso, arranged by Bley with a lightly whimsical flourish, flipping from the blues to Monk's idiosyncratic phrasing, with Sheppard kicking in with a raw blast from the Pharaoh Sanders book.

To encore, Lawns, introduced by Bley's precisely pin-pointed piano figures brought a breathy, soft-toned intimacy from Sheppard that beautifully summed up the spirit of the entire evening.

Carla Bley's Liberation Music Orchestra will be at Cadogan Hall on Nov 20th as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival

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