Live review

REVIEW: Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/Andy Sheppard at the Jazz Standard, New York

Andy Sheppard, Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Publicity picture

Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/Andy Sheppard
(Jazz Standard, New York, 19 March 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Watt and xtraWatt – the Carla Bley record labels – have a quirky maze of a website. I would recommend getting lost within all of its random cartoons, silly stony-faced photo in-jokes, and recreated biblical portraits.

Hidden somewhere within the site are some biographies, although biographies does them an injustice; they are more like essay memoirs, summaries written to share with family abroad the minutiae of working life month by month, year by year. They feature in incredible detail the stories of the WattxtraWatt stable, all inclusive of occasional festive holiday details and a commendable array of humorous band names, and song and album titles.

The potted history from Carla Bley’s biography/memoir is, while she didn’t take a conventional route to jazz royalty, she has now been dizzyingly busy for the last 50 years. Whether it was composing, arranging and playing music for duos/trios/quartets/quintets/octets/big bands/bigger band, managing a record label or teaching; whether in north America, Europe or beyond, the common denominators for the last 40 of those years have been the presence of Steve Swallow. The presence of Andy Sheppard comes in a close third place for the last 25 years.

This evening at the Jazz Standard is about Bley and her compositions, but it would be churlish not to mention that Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard are also continuing with dizzying distinguished careers of their own, which in their own ways are intertwined, with Swallow producing a record for Sheppard many moons ago before the three played together.

So, apparently tired from all 50 years of exertion, composition and variation, Bley opens the set solo with a simple languid blues. A familiar feel, Swallow’s bass joins in at the highest range – more like a guitar – and Sheppard with warm, smooth tenor sax. This is Life Goes On, and develops from the comforting start into the next three phases On, And On, And Then One Day. We pass through grungier keys, a slight drag, and wavering soprano sax. For a piece being played live for only the second time (presumably the first set of the evening had the original honour) this is a composition of four movements leveraging sparse arrangements, and relishing in having only two or one instrument from the trio playing at a time.

This is really the mood – a trio so confident in themselves, they are happy to switch in and out, and to leave crucial space unfilled. It echoes an old Bley story of the first piece of music she wrote, at the age of five:

She presented her dad with a piece of paper covered in black dots.
He said there were too many dots.
She erased half of them.

The set overall is broadly an unfussy, unhurried, unpretentious collection of pieces: a classic piano trio for Ups and Downs anchored on the walking pull of Swallow; the beautifully poised inevitable serpentine chordal descent of Lawns.

But there are a few “difficult ones” slipped in (this being Bley and Swallow’s personal code for interesting fun time signature multi-part pieces). Vashkar feels like it really turns, pulls, the repetitive pushed bass support to deeper piano, and light sop touches. Beautiful Telephones is a real lament, hooked on a president’s facile idiocy. Moments where the piano and bass as a duet for much of it swapping the holding role between them to let the other free. I’m not sure about the telephones, but the bass solo is beautiful and tender, the tenor solo beautiful and inquisitive over the slow pulse of the bass. And then a beautiful Bley solo, stepped, slow, which she unravels and discovers as she goes.

Before the gig we find ourselves lined up down the side of the stairs to enter the Jazz Standard. You can tell it’s a relatively new venue as the stairs are wide enough to actually meet building regulations, and you can queue on the side without the exit becoming an impassable death trap. As we wait, people stagger up the stairs and out from the set before. They mumble, “You’re going to love it”, “You’re in for a big treat”. A beautiful set and a standing ovation later, they weren’t wrong.

LINK: Review of the 2018 Montreal Celebration of Carla Bley

Categories: Live review

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