REVIEW: Carla Bley Trio at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Carla Bley
Photo : ECM 


Carla Bley Trio
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, London, 1 June 2017. Review by Jane Mann)


It was a pleasure to hear the Carla Bley Trio in such an intimate venue as the Pizza Express Jazz Club. Composer Carla Bley was at the piano, her partner, fellow American Steve Swallow, had his 5-string semi-acoustic electric bass and Englishman Andy Sheppard played tenor and soprano saxophones. Swallow has been a collaborator since the 1960s and Sheppard first played with Bley right at the beginning of his career in 1987. The three of them have been playing together as the Trio for more than 20 years, and this closeness is apparent from the outset.

The gig was sold out well in advance and, unsurprisingly, the reception was very warm. The programme comprised a mixture of tunes from Bley’s vast back catalogue and some very new pieces.

They kicked off with Rut, a piece from Night-glo (1985) and immediately we were treated to an archetypal pared down Bley arrangement, with thoughtful piano and bass parts, and Sheppard’s lyrical sax flying over the top. Every note is considered and only played if essential, there are no throwaway pyrotechnics or self-indulgent solos; it is a distillation of jazz. Next was Ups and Downs from Duets (1988) which starts as a lovely waltz before diving Monkishly to and fro between three and four time. When the audience cheered at the end of this piece, Carla Bley stood up from the piano and said “I’m happy to be here too” and it felt that way.

Then came a suite from last year’s Andando el Tiempo CD – a long, serious and complicated piece, in three movements, about addiction: Sin Fin (never-ending); Potacio de Guaya, which Bley translated as “drink of grief”, then, hurrah, a happy ending: Camino al Volver (the way back). When it began I was reminded of The Ballad of the Fallen (1983) with its Latin American dance rhythms and syncopated descending runs. The piece continued in Bley’s category defying musical style, at times more contemporary art music than jazz. There was a lovely Nino Rota-ish piano and bass duet, then a section of repeated arpeggios from piano and bass in the manner of the west coast minimalists. After these two somewhat sombre movements came relief with a cheerful tune, more delicate counterpoint between piano and bass and those characteristic long warm notes from the sax optimistically climbing upwards again.

The show continued with a deconstructed Misterioso, and the boundaries blurred again between jazz and contemporary art music. Each member of the trio played with delicacy, the writing leaving space for improvisation. After a particularly sensitive duet between piano and sax I recalled that, years ago, I heard Sheppard play an extended duet with an actual blackbird at a dusk performance in the Barbican Conservatory. For me, he is one of the most relaxed and receptive ensemble players around.

The last piece was a new composition dedicated to Donald Trump called Beautiful Telephones. It was a tour de force. It gave us extended, expansive piano, pleasing subtle bass, and some melancholy melodies for all three performers. Mixed in were snatches of familiar tunes, starting with Chopin’s Funeral March and a hint of Danse Macabre. There followed a gloomy section, quite dissonant in places, filled with flashes of iconic American tunes: The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. The Trio at this point gave the uncanny impression of being a much larger band. Finally, after a glimpse of My Way, all the notes seemed suddenly to tumble to the floor, and we sat silently feeling rather dispirited for a second, before the audience recovered and erupted in enthusiastic applause.

To cheer us up, there followed a beautifully optimistic encore, full of warm chords, gorgeous melody and a satisfying resolution. The audience clapped long and hard, and the Trio beamed at us before retiring for the evening.

The two recent Carla Bley Trio CDs are available on ECM: Trios (2013) and Andando El Tiempo (2016)

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