By Paul de Barros | Published April 2020
Carla Bley’s longtime trio with bassist Steve Swallow and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard played one of the more memorable sets at last year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and this studio recording is a brilliant extension of their camaraderie. The album offers three suites that highlight Bley’s deft sense of dramatic development, her gifts as a soloist (so often overshadowed by her composing) and the trio’s deadpan minimalism and subtly organic interplay.
The pianist, 81, recently had surgery for a brain tumor, so the title (and title track) have deep personal resonance. The four parts of the opening suite—“Life Goes On,” “On,” “And On,” “And Then One Day”—play out like a little story about mortality, beginning with a slow and sexy blues, as if to say, “Here is bedrock, everyday life as it should be,” followed by a tender, Monk-ish ballad that has “I adore you” written all over it. After a playful, quick dance in 3—“Life is good; life’s a dance”—comes the crash: a tense piano pulse, Swallow’s high, hooting bass guitar chewing on dissonance, Sheppard switching from keening soprano to virile tenor, then everyone slowing down to a stop, with a final tolling bell. It’s as if the band’s saying, “Yes, life goes on, but in the end, it also doesn’t.”
Bley’s ability to embrace such dichotomies lies at the heart of her genius. The noirish “Beautiful Telephones”—which takes its title from Donald Trump’s commentary on White House decor after moving in—manages to be both ominous and emotionally expressive. Bley breaks out with splashy figures, as Swallow buoys her, breaking for a moment into a walk, then answers her call. Sheppard solos passionately on tenor.
The trio has no drummer, so there’s a lot of air between notes, and sometimes the players pair up. On the clever third piece, “Copy Cat,” Bley, Swallow and Sheppard repeat or complete one another’s thoughts, giving off electricity as they glance off each other’s compact phrases. Sheppard’s soprano spits and thrusts in a duet with Swallow, who periodically leaves the reed-ist to fly off the cliff into stop-time. The pianist plunks and plinks with delight, answering Sheppard.
During Bley’s long and rich career, there have been times when her work has merely seemed smart, but not emotionally resonant. Here, it’s both, and her trio is all in for life—as long as it lasts.
Life Goes On: Life Goes On; Beautiful Telephones; Copy Cat. (56:39)
Personnel: Carla Bley, piano; Andy Sheppard, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Steve Swallow, electric bass.