Carla Bley returns to her long running drum-less threesome featuring electric bassist Steve Swallow and tenor saxman Andy Sheppard with an album by this ensemble next week. Trios is the name, though there’s only this one trio performing the songs, all five numbers which Bley had written and recorded on prior albums. This small combo was last represented on record with 1995′s live album Songs With Legs.
For the first time on a Carla Bley-led record, she’s recording under direction of a producer other than herself for this album, and that person is ECM head Manfred Eicher. Along with that, she is recording for the ECM label proper for the first time (her records from the WATT imprint are only distributed by ECM). Since this trio has been an ongoing entity for some twenty years, it’s doubtful that there was much left for Eicher to add in terms of arrangements, but he did choose which Bley songs to record and the running order of those songs, which did much to shape the character of Trios.
Eicher’s influence is felt right from the start in choosing the program to begin with a slower, quieter tune, “Utviklongssang,” a protest song that means “Development Song” in Norwegian. There’s no anger to be found here, however, it unfolds like a flower beginning with Swallow’s patented lyrical bass lines. For those looking for extended soloing from Bley herself will have to look elsewhere, she is locked in on melody and harmony and leaves the choicest improvising moments to her two cohorts. In fact, the performance follows the very simple strategy put forth by Bley: “We just play the music and take some solos. We play it very close to the way it was written.” Since “Utviklongssang” is a well-written folk strain with a Nordic flavor, it’s a strategy that works rather well.
“Vashkar” here bears very little resemblance to the best-known fusion explosion by Tony Williams’ Lifetime (and the Lifetime semi-tribute band Spectrum Road). Here in the composer’s hands, the cracks and crevices of this Middle Eastern tinged melody are revealed, thanks to a perfect alliance between Bley and Swallow.
The remaining three selections are each three-part suites, great examples of Bley’s ability to weave a theme throughout several episodes and make it sound come off uncomplicated with an appealing flow. “Les Trois Lagons” is one, multi-sectioned composition that already started life in trio clothes, a fifteen minute sweep of styles beginning with Sheppard’s bop chops, moving to one of Swallow’s gorgeous moody expressions and finally, Bley’s spiraling descending figure.
It’s apparent that “Wildlife” was conceived for a larger ensemble than this one, but Bley manages to script the parts for each performer that gets the many harmonic ideas of the song across with just three musicians. The program ends with “The Girl Who Cried Champagne,” previously interpreted in a variety of settings like 1986′s Sextet and the big band record Fleur Carnivore (1989). It’s intimate and inviting in this latest rendition, Sheppard plays in a jovial, almost playful manner that illuminates Bley’s bouncy, circular figure. That figure gets slowed down and reharmonized in the middle section while Swallow does his thing making the bass sing before returning to the original arrangement for the final part.
Carla Bley has over the course of fifty-plus years left us with a voluminous body of work of both diverse and consistent quality. Over time, these songs will certainly be dissected and resurrected in greater frequency by many progressive-minded jazz musicians after her. But there’s nothing wrong with the re-evaluation starting now, and by Bley herself. Trios points the way for how others might want to approach her vast, rich catalog.
Trios goes on sale September 10 by ECM Records.