Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bley’s Black Orchid Big Band

Appearing Nightly
Carla Bley and her Remarkable Big Band
WATT/ECM Records

The website for Carla Bley’s WATT label (distributed by ECM) is pretty funny. It represents WATT Records as a prison, with Bley and longtime musical partner Steve Swallow as the inmates, and web designer and frequent musical collaborator Karen Mantler as the warden. That sense of humor and all three musicians are also present on Bley’s newest release, Appearing Nightly.

Nightly consists largely of festival commissions which, though modern, are informed by and deliberately suggestive of 1950’s big band jazz. The opening “Greasy Gravy” for instance, has hints of a Basie vibe, particularly in Bley’s use of the trombone section. At times tagged with a reputation for playing "arranger's piano," Bley fits nicely into the Basie mold—supportive and swinging, but stylistically economical in her own solos.

The following “Awful Coffee” came out of the same culinary themed festival commission that produced “Gravy.” For one passage of the somewhat more caffeinated track, Bley throws in quotes from “Salt Peanuts,” You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” Watermelon Man,” “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” “Hey Pete Let’s Eat More Meat,” and “Tea for Two.” The food theme seems to come naturally to Bley, who penned six different Banana compositions for last year’s release with her “Lost Chords” group and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu.

The heart of Nightly is “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid,” a twenty-five minute suite commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, named after a Monterey lounge Bley gigged at early in her career. Its movements allude to elements of the nightly jazz gig: “40 On / 20 Off,” “Second Round,” “What Would You Like to Hear,” and “Last Call.” It may sound a bit self-referential to compose a jazz suite to represent a jazz gig, but these are post-modern times.

Introduced with an elegant piano prelude from Bley, “40 On” then segues into a fine example of Steve Swallow’s melodic approach to the electric bass, as the band slowly swells up underneath him. The brass comes out swinging in “Second Round,” particularly featured trombonist Gary Valente. “Like to Hear” is more subdued, maybe reflecting musicians’ constant trepidation a patron might request some dreaded chestnut like “My Melancholy Baby.” Muted horns wail plaintively and Bley takes a brief but meditative solo, before the bands comes in building up towards the hard charging finale, “Last Call.”

Rounding out the program with one standard, “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You,” and “Someone to Watch,” an original which germinated from the seed of a Gershwin tune, Nightly is most definitely a swinging affair. Bley has assembled a first-rate band and her originals have a vigor that is refreshing. For some reason, her music seems to have a reputation for being less accessible than it really is, but Nightly ought to be warmly received by both jazz modernists and big band fans.