The album—recorded just six months shy of Carla Bley’s 80th birthday—follows up the devastatingly lovely Trios, a set of five extant but radically recast Bley compositions issued a couple of years ago, with five entirely new pieces tailor-made for this trio.
For 35 years Bley released albums—more than 20 of them—exclusively on WATT, the label she set up in 1972 with her then husband, the trumpeter Michael Mantler. WATT gave Bley the freedom to operate on her own terms, but also probably limited her exposure. 2013’s Trios was her first recording for WATT’s parent label ECM, and her first under the guidance of a producer, ECM’s Manfred Eicher; it marked a significant career shift, spotlighting her distinctiveness as a pianist and performer after years devoted to composing and arranging, primarily for ensembles.
This new development is grounded in Bley’s exceptional rapport with Steve Swallow.
Swallow first came to prominence in the 60s, playing in The Jimmy Giuffre Trio alongside Paul Bley, Carla first husband. Initially a bassist, he went on to develop a singular, song-like voice on the 5-string bass guitar, which he now plays exclusively. He joined Carla’s band in 1978, and soon became her essential collaborator, and later her romantic partner too – a twining encapsulated on their 1993 duo album, Go Together.
British saxophonist Andy Sheppard came up with a string of albums for Island/Antilles and Blue Note in the late 80s, and the next decade marked him out as one of the brightest and most distinctive of that era’s UK jazz scene. But his thoughtful, melodic bent was at odds with the retro brashness of the then-current Acid Jazz movement, and he matured as much through his parallel associations with Gil Evans, George Russell, and Bley, the trinity of individualist composers to whom he dedicated his own big band album Soft on the Inside (1990). He’s a perfect foil for Bley and Swallow, with an intuitive ear for Bley’s ambitions while complementing Swallow’s song-like bass guitar lines beautifully.
Sheppard began to work with Bley and Swallow in 1988 – the first Bley album he played on was the outstanding Fleur Carnivore (1989). In 1994 the trio recorded its debut, the live album Songs with Legs, and ten years later, Bley, Sheppard and Swallow toured and recorded lyrical hard bop as The Lost Chords, with drummer Billy Drummond, going one further with The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (2007) – a superb quintet with the name-checked Italian trumpeter.
Trios was something else – a collection of material from the Bley songbook stripped to melodic essentials, beautifully re-arranged and re-interpreted. As a set of all new music, Andando el Tiempo (ECM) is a progression that sees Bley adapting, as she told the Detroit Metro-Times: “When I write for the trio, it’s really big-band music reduced. I want to work with the big band but I can’t afford to do that anymore. I have to play way over my head and so do the guys.”
The album begins with a 28 minute suite in three parts, the title piece, which was inspired by a friend kicking an addiction – a journey from “the insufferable…cycle of medication” (“Sin Fin”) and its attendant sorrow (“Potación de Guaya”, or “drink of grief”) to “the work of returning to a healthy and sustainable life” (“Camino al Volver”).
The gentleness and tranquility of “Sin Fin” is surprising, given the subject matter. There’s a translucent clarity to Bley’s pianism, so Sheppard’s sax sounds warm and breathy in counterpoint. Swallow’s first notes drop with an inherent musicality and the softness and clarity of snow, and Sheppard initially drops out in deference, allowing Bley and Swallow to elaborate a translucently clear melody. But there’s no deference when he returns, taking the lead line with depth of feeling and an improvisor’s sensitivity to nuance, his expressivity closely tailored to Bley’s design.
When the composer’s vision is as distilled as it is in these pieces, the acuity and expressivity of its interpreters is everything. It would be hard to find a sound that captures the introspective sorrow of “Potación de Guaya” better than Swallow’s. And his switch to contrabass range when Sheppard’s alto picks up the theme is extremely effective.
Bley is never showy, always acute and incisive. It’s always she who sets the tone, as when she lights a course through the exposed intricacies of “Potación de Guaya”. But the music depends on the astuteness of the trio as a unity, and the elaboration of their gameplay, their gradual shift of tone and the injection of an initially tentative sprightliness, is just delightful, the resolution of the suite a masterful pas de trois.
The first of the two remaining stand-alone pieces, “Saints Alive!”, is more placid than its title suggest, beginning with a long, serene duologue for Bley and Swallow before Sheppard gets to add his own lapidary elaborations.
The closing “Naked Bridges/Diving Brides” was written on the occasion of Sheppard’s wedding, with Bley citing the inspiration of Mendelssohn—her lines are appropriately pithy and lyrical—and the poetry of Paul Haines (Bley’s collaborator on her 1971 landmark recording The Escalator Over the Hill). This is an exceptionally subtle and intricate piece, again developed by Bley and Swallow but given an added dimension by the late entry of Sheppard’s penetratingly ingenious soprano.
It’s hard to find fault. There’s arguably an even greater sense of balance and freedom to the Trios set, but Andanto el Tiempo runs it close and perhaps opens a new book on Bley’s career. The two albums are complements – a point emphasised by the likeness of their covers.
Carla Bley piano; Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones; Steve Swallow bass guitar.