RIP Carla Bley 1936-2023

© Caterina Di Perri / ECM

Our good friend Carla Bley has died, aged 87, after a long illness. One of jazz’s great composers, she was a stubborn and witty individualist who heard and wrote and played things differently. “She works in many forms,” critic Nat Hentoff noted, “and her scores for big jazz bands are matched only by those of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus for yearning lyricism, explosive exultation and other expressions of the human condition.” The large ensembles, remarkable as they were, were but part of the story.

The originality of Carla’s writing was evident already in the early 1960s as musicians including Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, Art Farmer, and George Russell began to play her pieces. Many of the tunes she wrote then have acquired the status of contemporary standards, among them “Jesus Maria”. “Ictus”, “Sing Me Softly of the Blues”, “King Korn”, “Vashkar”, and more.  “There are so many of them, each as well-crafted as pieces by Satie or Mompou—or Thelonious Monk for that matter,” as Manfred Eicher has observed. “Carla belongs in that tradition of radical originality.”

The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, of which Carla was a founder member, recorded her epic Escalator Over The Hill, described by down beat as “a masterpiece…maybe the most extensive and ambitious piece ever to come out of the jazz world.” In 1973 Carla and Michael Mantler launched the WATT label which would be the primary platform for her work in the 20th century, with formats ranging from duos with Steve Swallow to Very Big Band and idioms including Fancy Chamber Music, Christmas music, Dinner Music, and the Dada-esque I Hate To Sing.  Her arrangements for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra graced The Ballad of the Fallen, a 1982 ECM session with luminous settings of songs associated  the Spanish Civil War and with revolutionary movements in El Salvador, Chile and Portugal.

Carla Bley’s last albums were the ECM recordings made at Lugano’s Auditorio RSI with the exceptional group with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow: Trios, Andando el Tiempo, and Life Goes On. As well as the group interaction, each of the recordings also emphasized the unique qualities of Bley’s pianism. Carla’s relationship with the instrument she had played since the age of four was sometimes troubled. “I would rather write music than perform it,“ she would often insist. “I’m at a disadvantage when I improvise since jazz solos are instant composition and I’m a slow and thoughtful composer. By the time I’ve thought of the next note, the chorus could easily be over.” Her admirers – count us in - waved away such protests. Any hesitations in the determined search for the good notes only added a touch of drama and Zen allure to the playing.

In later years, Carla herself seemed to be reframing her reservations: “There’s nobody that plays like me — why would they?”, she asked The New York Times. “So if I’ve had an influence, maybe it would be if they decided to play like themselves. In other words, the whole idea of not playing like anybody else is a way of playing.”

She will be sorely missed.

Text © ECM newsletter  -  photo © Caterina Di Perri

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