Carla Bley Stretches Out at Big Ears


Pianist Carla Bley leads a trio with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 23.

(Photo: Eli Johnson)

Pianist Carla Bley’s longtime trio with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard is set to head into a Swiss studio this spring to record the group’s third album for ECM Records. So, it made sense for the group to head to Knoxville, Tennessee, for a tune-up as part of the Big Ears Festival’s tribute to the label, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“This is music we’ve been preparing for the last three years,” Bley said in a phone conversation before the festival. She was excited to get the chance to once again work with ECM head Manfred Eicher, whom she’s known for decades and has been an auteurish presence during past recording sessions. “The reason we’re touring is to be able to practice it every night in front of an audience and get it right, because it’s finally going to get put down. It’ll always be the same once it’s recorded.”

The March 23 performance in Knoxville—sandwiched between trio sets at CapitolBop in Washington, D.C., the night before and Dazzle in Denver the following day—was part of a quick North American tour before the band heads across the Atlantic. Bley last performed at Big Ears in 2017 with both the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and her trio. This year, the band shared a four-day bill with a wide swath of ensembles from both inside and outside the ECM universe. The full festival lineup included the trio of Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, vocal artists Meredith Monk and Joan La Barbara, a capella ensemble Roomful of Teeth and a broad array of classical, jazz, bluegrass and electronic musicians.

Bley’s trio opened its Big Ears set with the 15-minute “Copy Cat,” a new tune that likely will make its way into the studio. In the piece, the pianist’s sparse balladic intro propped up a languid saxophone melody, before giving way to a livelier section with more melodic interplay, anchored by a Swallow’s skipping bass line.

Sheppard, a performer well-suited to Bley’s compositions, took his time, using silence, a broad dynamic range and varied articulations to craft compelling solos. Occasionally, he launched into a barrage of notes and multiphonics before descending, sotto voce, to resonant subtones. While some groups during the weekend crammed in all the notes they could during high-octane sets, Bley’s trio was a calming influence. They played heady, complicated, through-composed tunes at a simmer.

The group closed its set with an expansive Bley arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” that took the composition’s melodic idea and stretched and poked it in a quasi theme-and-variations setting. The melody first appeared as a thrillingly disorienting head, echoed in both piano and saxophone, then as a rubato bridge between saxophone solo and piano improvisation.

Swallow said the trio’s opportunity to play widely in the States is somewhat rare due to both the draw of jazz and the singular music Bley’s trio features. The bassist continued, saying a healthy performance schedule in Europe is no accident.

“It’s kind of understood that we’re not going to sell tickets in the same way that Madonna sells tickets. But there’s also a strong sense in Europe that there’s value to the arts—that people’s lives are made better by the arts. That’s something that’s lacking in the United States, and something we’ve always pushed for with lesser success,” he said.

Swalllow estimated that for most of the group’s existence, government funding has been responsible for the band playing the gigs it has, worldwide, in one form or the other. But he’s starting to see that government support receding.

“There are clouds on the horizon in Europe as the politics change. As the right ascends, the funding for the arts descends,” he said. “All of us are kind of watching that with concern.”

Bley added: “I think it has to do with the people at the top, or the voters—in a democracy it would be the voters, wouldn’t it? You would vote in a person that subsidized the arts, if you were a person who liked the arts.”

Now in its 10th year, Big Ears resists easy classification. The event can’t be called a jazz festival; concertgoers could spend all four days listening to nothing but bluegrass, metal, contemporary classical music and forward-thinking pop. Swallow simply suggested the word “experimental.” It’s a classification conundrum that might not even matter. Swallow said the all-encompassing lineup reminds him of the trio’s performances overseas.

“There are Big Earses growing all over the place in Europe,” he said. “What’s remarkable is that Big Ears is growing in the States.” DB

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