During her lengthy career, Carla Bley has established a formidable reputation as a composer, a big band leader and a businesswoman. To celebrate her 80th birthday, she has just released a recording that focuses on her piano playing. “Andando el Tiempo” (ECM) is a showcase for Ms. Bley’s intimate music, and it features superb, reserved performances in a trio setting featuring two longtime collaborators, bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.
Ms. Bley has worked with both musicians for more than 20 years, and their rapport is easy to hear; there are few unaccompanied solos, and most of the interplay sounds intuitive and spontaneous rather than composed. Ms. Bley’s pieces are elegant and contemplative. Unlike her work in the ’60s, which featured a biting, urban edge, these compositions are nearly pastoral, perhaps an effect of her living just outside of Woodstock, N.Y., for more than a quarter century. Some of her early work—written in the late ’50s and early ’60s—was recorded by a Jimmy Giuffre-led trio of the same configuration found on “Andando el Tiempo.” This new recording has some of the same subtle complexities of that earlier band, though this ensemble’s temperament is more relaxed and the music is more contemplative. Unlike many pianists, Ms. Bley isn’t a flamboyant soloist; instead her style pushes the music gently into new realms.
Ms. Bley first made her mark on the New York jazz scene as a composer, but in 1964 she helped organize the Jazz Composers Guild, a collective that led to the formation of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which featured many of the era’s finest musicians, including trumpeter Don Cherry and trombonist Roswell Rudd. In 1971, the Orchestra released her best known work, “Escalator Over the Hill,” a sprawling two-hour piece with poetry by Paul Haines—often called a jazz opera—that involved more than 30 musicians. She also started two labels, JCOA and WATT, as well as the New Music Distribution Service, which channeled the work of independent jazz labels into the marketplace.
At a May 11 concert and reception to celebrate both the new recording and Ms. Bley’s birthday, the trio performed “Copycat,” a new composition, as well as music from the new album. Afterward Ms. Bley spoke enthusiastically about a gig early next month in Hamburg, Germany, where she will present another new work, “La Leçon Française,” for the NDR big band and a 40-member boys’ choir. In addition, this summer she will direct the Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Clearly Ms. Bley’s efforts in small groups haven’t dimmed her passion for large ensemble presentations.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.