@ 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 desert island?
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 recordings.
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
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
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 cast.
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.