July 1st 2017


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COVER STORY 'Safe Schools' and every school's duty of care

CANBERRA OBSERVED Catholic education: not gone but Gonski'd

EDITORIAL Oh dear, Prime Minister, Brexit is harder now

ELECTRICITY Blueprint author did not ask about the weather

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Call for referendum after Taiwan court backs same-sex marriage

EUTHANASIA Death-dealing bills break out like hydras' heads

GENDER POLITICS New breed of young women takes on the United Nations

CULTURE AND HISTORY The past is a foreign country

LITERATURE The Road to Wigan Pier and the roads beyond

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY The 'Brisbane line' and other scandals

MUSIC Carla Bley: sophisticated lady

CINEMA Churchill: The regrets of a Lear

BOOK REVIEW Charting 15 years of changing emphases

LETTERS

GENDER POLITICS The Pied Pipers of gender dysphoria

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MUSIC
Carla Bley: sophisticated lady


by David James

News Weekly, July 1, 2017

Jazz pianist and composer Carla Bley is one of the more intriguing figures in world jazz.

Carla Bley and Steve Swallow

Many of her compositions, such as Olhos de Gato and Lawns are exquisite combinations of stand-alone pieces and effective vehicles for improvisation, an unusual combination outside the jazz standards tradition. If jazz is supposed to combine an opening melody (or “head”) and solos that broadly touch on the opening theme, then as a writer Bley has mastered the art.

Her performance in the Melbourne International Jazz Festival was suitably enigmatic. She fronted a trio, with her husband, bassist Steve Swallow (pictured with Bley), and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. It was not a dynamic performance, in large part because of the absence of drums. But it did reward close listening. This was music steeped in the more sophisticated elements of the jazz language.

The mood was mostly elegiac. Viewed one way, Bley’s writing relies on slowly unfolding harmonic sequences that give it a sense of constantly becoming. There is little sense of tension and release, or of beginnings and ends.

Instead, there is something more akin to a constant swelling, a gradual accretion of feeling that is never simply one thing. The intensity is unmistakeable, but it would be difficult to find one word to describe it. It rather seems to be a disparate blend of different affect.

This is no small achievement. Music that unfolds so slowly can easily become tedious, especially when it is based on subtle variations of the same theme, as is routinely the case in Bley’s writing. That she ensures it does not evidences a fineness of sensibility that is only possible after a lifetime of playing. There is also subtle humour, an occasional toying with jazz cliche.

Bley’s sidemen were in many ways the front men. Swallow is an exceptional bassist, and his solos displayed the level of fluency one would expect. Sheppard likewise has virtuosic skills. His long lines demonstrated an ability both to imagine sustained melodic ideas and to breathe for apparently superhuman periods (at least some of the time he appeared to be using circular breathing).

Bley’s soloing was as understated as her aesthetic. Indeed, at first, her playing sounded clumsy – no bravura here. It is a startling contrast to most contemporary jazz piano playing, which is characterised by speed, heavy rhythmic displacement and rapid changes of tonality.

Monkish oddness

Listen closer, however, and one is reminded of the aesthetic of Thelonius Monk. There are, of course, many differences. Monk’s music was characterised by exuberant rhythms and effusive percussiveness. Bley’s playing has neither.

But there are intriguing similarities. When first listening to Monk, the clumsiness sounds almost amateurish. It is only later that one realises that the oddness is deliberate and the execution of the phrasing impossibly difficult.

Likewise, Bley at first hearing sounds clunky. But close listening reveals a constant shifting of phrases that is almost as distinctive as Monk’s peripatetic offerings.

And there is another similarity. Monk’s solos were highly sequential and ordered, because in the first instance he was a composer of strong and memorable melodies. Bley’s improvising similarly relies on sequential development rather than attempts to impress with technical prowess.

Artistry, not virtuosity

Pianists with technical facility are becoming extremely common; improvisers who do something similar to Monk are exceedingly rare. Bley may not be a virtuoso, but her aesthetic is distinctive and impressive, and to that extent she is a convincing artist.

It gives rise to another consideration, the role of limits. Most contemporary jazz improvisers have exceptional technique, which they insist on displaying, often to the point of extreme tedium.

A convincing aesthetic requires a sense of limits. Without it, there is little evocation of the human; encountering limits is central to the human experience. Thus the cracked notes of trumpeter Miles Davis are often the most affecting sounds he makes. The plaintive, slightly out of tune long notes of saxophonist John Coltrane have an equivalent effect. Trumpeter Winton Marsalis, whose technical control indicates that there are few limits on what he can do, has never sounded that good.

To the extent that art holds up a mirror to nature, restrictions need to be reflected in the artifice. Bach (allegedly) said that without the constraints of the fugue form he would not have been able to compose as he did. That is perhaps how to interpret Bley’s restraint.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.




























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