@ the Barbican 22 May 2011 (In The Mirror Portraits)
& the Queen Elizabeth Hall 17 November 2009
Click an image to enlarge.
Desert Island Discs...
Which 2 albums would you take with you to a
Angelica Sanchez – A Little House
Count Basie - Breakfast Dance & Barbecue
Carla Bley was born in Oakland, California
in 1936. Her father Emil Borg, a piano teacher and church organist,
began giving her music lessons when she was three years old and
she was soon playing at church functions. But her musical education
ended at the age of eight. Her formal education stopped entirely
when she dropped out of high school after completing the tenth grade.
During her adolescence Bley was drawn to jazz and moved to New York
City to be closer to the musicians she admired. She resumed her
musical education by working as a cigarette girl at the notorious
Birdland jazz club, where she was able to hear the greatest jazz
musicians of the day. She met pianist Paul Bley and eventually relocated
to Los Angeles, where Paul and his quartet had a steady gig at the
Hillcrest Club. She began to write music. When saxophonist Ornette
Coleman came on the scene in the mid-fifties, Paul Bley immediately
hired him and Carla was exposed nightly to ‘free’ playing,
a powerful influence that was to affect her writing for many years.
In the early sixties Paul and Carla
Bley returned to New York. Soon George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Tony
Williams and others began to play and record her compositions. During
this period she also worked in the cloakrooms of Basin Street and
the Jazz Gallery in order to hear as much music as possible. She
was a member of The Jazz Composer’s Guild and met composer
Michael Mantler at the meetings. They formed a group called The
Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and soon became personally involved;
she left Paul Bley and moved in with Michael Mantler. In 1966 they
had a daughter, Karen, who was to be Bley’s only child.
At the end of the sixties Gary Burton
recorded Bley’s first extended work, A Genuine Tong Funeral.
Shortly after, Charlie Haden asked her to arrange and write for
The Liberation Music Orchestra. Her next major work, with words
by Paul Haines, Escalator Over the Hill, was recorded on the Jazz
Composer’s Orchestra Association’s label, JCOA. It received
the French award Oscar du Disque de Jazz. Soon she and Michael Mantler
founded The New Music Distribution Service, which distributed independent
In 1972 Bley received a Guggenheim
Fellowship. She and Mantler started their own record company, WATT.
Its first release was Bley’s Tropic Appetites, another project
with poet Paul Haines. In 1974 The Ensemble, a group of New York
players, commissioned a piece for chamber orchestra. Titled ¾,
it was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and featured pianist Keith
Jarrett. It was later performed by Speculum Musicae featuring Ursula
Oppens, and recorded for the WATT label with Bley as the soloist.
In1975 she was in a band with Jack Bruce and Mick Taylor, and lived
in London for six months. After the band prematurely broke up she
returned home and decided to start her own band. Over the next six
years the Carla Bley Band, which consisted of six horns and a rhythm
section, toured Europe and Japan, and made five albums on the WATT
label. The band also recorded a movie soundtrack for the Claude
Miller film Mortelle Randonee and played Bley’s arrangement
of Nino Rota’s music for 8 ½ on Hal Willner’s
Fellini tribute album. During this period she also did recording
projects for other labels with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, Stuff,
and Charlie Haden.
Bley’s next regular group was
an enlarged rhythm section without horns, but she still made recordings
with larger groups. Heavy Heart, then Night-Glo, the album she wrote
for her bass player (and soon to be partner) Steve Swallow, were
her next projects for the WATT label. The music on these two albums
was not well received by the jazz establishment or her public but
she managed to be voted Best Composer by Downbeat magazine before
her fall from favor. She also received the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis.
Two more arrangements for Hal Willner tribute albums, of Theolonius
Monk’s Misterioso featuring Johnny Griffin and Kurt Weill’s
Lost in the Stars featuring Phil Woods, were also recorded during
this time. Misterioso was nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental,
The Carla Bley Sextet, with Hiram
Bullock, Larry Willis, Steve Swallow, Victor Lewis and Don Alias,
toured in 1986 and recorded an album for WATT. An extension label
called XtraWATT was started to record the music of friends and family.
It produced an album by Steve Weisberg, released a live recording
of a Sicilian Big Band playing orchestrations of Bley’s music
by Jeff Friedman and a series of albums by Bley’s daughter,
Karen Mantler. Soon it became the label for all of Steve Swallow’s
projects. She received a commission from The Lincoln Center Chamber
Music Society and wrote a piece featuring Fred Sherry, Paula Robison
and Ani Kavafian called Coppertone. Soon after, she wrote Romantic
Notions, a set of short piano pieces, for Ursula Oppens.
Playing duets with Steve Swallow,
which started as recreation, soon turned professional and Swallow
and Bley toured and recorded as a duo regularly for five years.
Their first album was called Duets. They were guests on the short-lived
NBC TV Night Music series, produced by Hal Willner and hosted by
David Sanborn. During that time she also worked with a 15-piece
band and recorded the album Fleur Carnivore, then started writing
for the standard Big Band instrumentation. Another album, Dreamkeeper,
arranged for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, won
the Downbeat Record of the Year award. She also was named Best Composer
by Jazz Times magazine and Jazz Musician of the Year by Hi Fi Vision.
In the fall of 1990 she was a visiting
professor at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA.
During the semester she took off time to tour Europe and record
The Very Big Carla Bley Band. The album received the Prix Jazz Moderne
from the French Academy du Jazz.
She and Michael Mantler separated in early 1991. Soon after, Bley
and Steve Swallow began living together. A second Duets album, Go
Together, was recorded during the summer of 1992. A commission from
the Glasgow Jazz Festival resulted in a piece for violin and Big
Band, called Birds of Paradise. It featured Rumanian violinist Alex
The ‘Very Big Band’ toured
Europe in the fall of 1993 and recorded another album, Big Band
Theory, which included Birds of Paradise, at a studio in London.
The album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Jazz Big Band category.
During the remainder of the year Bley performed only with Steve
Swallow, but eventually saxophonist Andy Sheppard was added to the
duo. The trio toured Europe and recorded a live album called “Songs
In 1994 Bley finished “Tigers
In Training”, a piece commissioned by the Hamburg-based chamber
group, L’Art Pour L’Art, and wrote a piece for the Carnegie
Hall Jazz Band. In 1995 she and Steve swallow played Duets in Brazil,
and worked with local Big Bands, first in Sandvika, Norway, then
at the Cornish Institute in Seattle. In November, Carla’s
Big Band premiered a commissioned piece, Setting Calvin’s
Waltz, at the Berlin Jazz Festival. This was followed by another
European Duets tour. She got to hear all the music she had recently
been writing for classical musicians at the 300th Jazz Workshop
at the North German radio station in Hamburg . A new piece, “End
of Vienna” was premiered there.
In early 1996 Bley, Steve Swallow
and Andy Sheppard performed a piece in Grenoble, France that had
been commissioned by the Grenoble Jazz Festival. Based on cutouts
by Henri Matisse, it was called Les Trois Lagons. In July there
was another Big Band tour, which culminated in three days of live
recording at a famous church in Perugia, Italy during the Umbria
Jazz Festival. The album was called The Carla Bley Big Band Goes
To Church. Later in the summer, a Big Band made up entirely of musicians
from New York played the new pieces at jazz festivals in Detroit
and Chicago. She spent the rest of the year writing chamber music.
In 1997 Bley had a week’s residency
at the Barbican Center in London. This was followed by a British
Arts Council tour of England. In June she went to Cologne, Germany
for the first live production of Escalator Over The Hill, then played
at the Montreal Jazz Festival with the trio. In August her Big Band
played at a festival in Belgium, and Bley and Swallow went to Helsinki,
Finland to work with a local Big Band. This was followed by a tour
and recording of Fancy Chamber Music, Bley’s collected music
written for non-improvising musicians. Bley and Swallow were invited
to Denmark to take part in a program called Jazzvisits. They lived
in Copenhagen for a month and worked with various groups of Danish
musicians. Escalator Over The Hill, with a 24-piece band including
Paul Haines, was presented at European Jazz Festivals in July. Bley
and Swallow recorded a Duets album, “Are We There Yet?”
during a tour in the fall of 1998. Bley spent the rest of the winter
preparing music for her new group, called 4X4.
In April of 1999 4X4 made its premiere
at a nightclub in Tokyo. In July the group, which consisted of four
horns and four rhythm, toured Europe and recorded an album in Oslo.
Later in the year, Carla and Steve played Trios with Andy Sheppard
in Europe. She spent the winter writing and re-orchestrating chamber
music. In March of 2000, Bley and Swallow went to Tokyo to play
a Fancy Chamber Music concert with members of the New Japan Philharmonic.
It was the first performance of a new piece called First Date. They
formally retired the Duets format after a concert in Sao Paulo the
Thierry Paul Benizeau, who had previously
made a film about Escalator Over The Hill, came to New York and
filmed a portrait of Bley that included a Trios concert at a gallery
in Woodstock. He continued filming the following month at a Fancy
Chamber Music concert in Verona, Italy. 4X4 toured Europe again
in the fall of 2000. During the next few years Bley and Swallow
worked with various Big Bands (in the USA, Luxembourg, Italy and
Portugal) including her own (Europe) and toured with Trios (Europe
and Korea). When Carla wasn’t touring she was writing music
for her next Big Band album.
In the fall of 2002 Bley recorded
“Looking For America” at a studio in New York. It was
nominated for a Grammy in the ‘best large jazz ensemble album”
category. The following year she played the music from that album
with musicians from New York at the Iridium in Manhattan, then took
the band to Minnesota to play a concert in Minneapolis. Bley’s
Big Band drummer, Billy Drummond, was added to Trios and the new
group was called The Lost Chords. Their first concert was in Austria
in August of 2003. That fall they toured Europe, recorded some of
the concerts, and released a live album called The Lost Chords.
During the winter Bley wrote and
arranged music for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.
She toured Europe with that group the following summer and recorded
the album “Not In Our Name in Rome”. Later that year
they played a night at the Village Vanguard in New York. In November
The Lost Chords had another European tour. Bley’s next project
was a piece for Big Band commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival.
During 2005 The Lost Chords worked
in America. Their schedule included appearances at the Newport Jazz
Festival and a week at Iridium in New York City followed by a two-week
tour of the West Coast. Appearing Nightly At The Black Orchid, the
piece Bley had written for the Monterey Jazz Festival, was premiered
at that festival in September. When the Lost Chords tour was over
Bley played a week at the Blue Note in New York with the Liberation
Music Orchestra, then went on a fall tour with that band in Europe.
Michael Kaufmann, director of programming at the
Philharmonie in Essen, Germany, invited Carla to be artist in residence
for a year. The first program she brought to Essen was Fancy Chamber
Music, performed with Steve Swallow and musicians from the area,
She spent the winter of 2006 writing music for an upcoming big band
tour scheduled for the summer, then returned to Essen twice in April,
first to prepare and perform a concert with a student big band,
and later to re-create Escalator Over The Hill with a mostly new
In the summer of 2006 the Carla Bley Big Band toured
Europe for three weeks and recorded a live album at the New Morning
in Paris. In August Bley and Swallow went to Sardinia and worked
with Orchestra Jazz Della Sardegna, then flew to Hamburg and presented
a similar program with the NDR Big Band. Another tour with the Liberation
Music Orchestra took place in November. In December Bley completed
her residency at the Essen Philharmonie with a program written especially
for the event called Bley’s Christmas Carols.
During the winter of 2007 she worked on music for
her new quintet, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu. The Banana Quintet
was written during this period. The group’s tour, in the spring
of the year, concluded with a recording (Watt/34) at Studio La Buissonne
in the south of France. She asked ECM if it would be possible to
release Watt/34 (The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu) before Watt/33
(the big band album, Appearing Nightly, which was due to be released
in a few months) and ECM agreed.
Bley and Swallow went to Toronto to rehearse and
perform Bley’s music with a Canadian big band at the Art Of
Jazz Festival. Later in the summer Bley made a few appearances with
the Liberation Music Orchestra at jazz festivals in the Northeast.
Bley and Swallow returned to La Buissonne to mix the quintet album
in August, and then continued on to the south of Italy and played
with the quintet at a festival in Rocella Ionica. In September they
rehearsed and performed Bley’s big band music with a young
Dutch big band at a jazz festival in Rotterdam.
In the fall the quintet with Paolo toured Europe.
ECM managed to have the new album released at the same time as the
tour. This was an unusual and, for Bley, unprecedented advantage
that allowed the album to get extensive promotional coverage resulting
in great reviews and strong sales. The big band album was re-scheduled
for release the following summer.
Michael Kaufmann asked Bley if she could envision a program involving
any other of the artists who had been in residency at the Essen
Philharmonie, to be performed in November of 2008. She decided to
work on a revision of an earlier piece called 3/4, and to feature
fellow resident Uri Caine as the piano soloist. During the rest
of the year she prepared music for that program, which would also
include other music she had written, and worked on new material
for an upcoming trio tour with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow.
During the holiday season she couldn’t resist arranging another
Christmas carol for brass quintet.
In April 2008 the trio of Carla Bley, Steve Swallow
and Andy Sheppard had a mini American tour consisting of a week
at Birdland in New York City, a night at a jazz club in Boston and
four days rehearsing and performing with the student band at the
University of Vermont in Burlington. Short but sweet. In early summer
Bley toured Europe with The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu.
In August The Lost Chords found another trumpet player, Michael
Rodriguez, and took him with them to the southern tip of Israel
for an appearance at The Red Sea Festival. It was hot as an oven
but they had a great time, when they weren’t rehearsing or
performing, exploring the area. The following month Bley played
with The Liberation Music Orchestra – first at Duke University
in North Carolina then in Minneapolis. The Lost Chords Find Michael
Rodriguez soon had another exciting trip; they went to Brazil for
concerts in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero and Vittoria. In November
Carla and Steve went to Essen and performed 3/4, featuring Uri Caine.
At that concert Bley also played trios with Andy Sheppard and Steve
Swallow, and made a rare appearance as a solo pianist, playing her
collection of short pieces called Romantic Notions. Bley and Swallow
went directly to Bari , Italy , and rehearsed with the Partyka Brass
Quintet in preparation for a whirlwind Christmas Carol tour of five
countries in five days; they played in Italy , Greece , Germany
, Poland and France , then went to the south of France and recorded
the album: Carla’s Christmas Carols. This marked the end of
a record-breaking series of formats in a short time period –
from quintet to chamber orchestra to trio to solo to duets with
brass quintet. Bley was glad to get back to her desk and spent the
winter writing a new piece for trumpet and big band.
In June of 2009 Bley went to London to rehearse
and perform with Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra
for the Meltdown Festival. While she was gone she received the Jazz
Journalist’s award for Best album of 2008 – Appearing
Nightly. Her daughter, Karen, (pretending to be Carla) attended
the ceremony and accepted the award. During July The Carla Bley
Big Band toured Europe.