On this episode of Piano Jazz, pianist, composer and free jazz pioneer Carla Bley drops by with her longtime partner, bassist Steve Swallow, for a simpatico set of original tunes from one of the most successful couples in jazz.
"Steve and I worked together years ago, and he reminded me of several fun times we had together," host Marian McPartland recalls from the session. "I thought it was a very good show. They were very alive and far out, but in a tasteful way. And I loved playing their beautiful ballad, 'Sing Me Softly the Blues.' After hearing it again this week, I'll have to go and dig up my copy of the sheet music."
Carla Bley, nee Borg, was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1936. Her father was a piano teacher and church organist who began giving her music lessons when she was 3 years old. She soon began playing at church functions; however, she gave up the church upon discovering roller skating at age 14. Her formal schooling ended when she dropped out of high school after completing the 10th grade. Bley had already discovered jazz, and she moved to New York City, where she became a cigarette girl at Birdland and was thus able to hear the world's top jazz players nightly. She met pianist Paul Bley, and the couple returned westward to Los Angeles. It was the mid-1950s, and Paul Bley hired a new saxophonist who had just burst onto the scene, the young Ornette Coleman. Carla Bley was immensely influenced by her husband's free jams with Coleman, and she began to write music. When the Bleys returned to New York, Carla found her compositions in favor with the early-'60s avant-garde — George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre and Tony Williams all recorded her tunes.
In 1964, Bley and her second husband, composer Michael Mantler, formed the Jazz Composer's Guild, later renamed the Jazz Composer's Orchestra. The organization also formed an independent artists' label, which issued Bley's jazz opera, Escalator Over the Hill, and commissioned orchestral works that included soloists Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri, among others.
Bley's other collaborations include arrangements for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, much of the music on Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason's 1981 solo album, and an arrangement of the score for Federico Fellini's film 8½. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as a long list of commissions including The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the Glasgow Jazz Festival and the Grenoble Jazz Festival.
Bassist and composer Steve Swallow was a pivotal member, with Paul Bley, of clarinetist and alto saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre's influential chamber jazz trio. In the early '70s, Swallow was one of the first jazz players to begin performing on the electric bass almost exclusively, and has been a regular winner in this category of the annual Downbeat readers' and critics' polls. Swallow and Bley have been working together since the mid-'80s. They toured and recorded first as a duo, and began to write big-band arrangements together in the early '90s. Today, they perform in the U.S. and Europe extensively with the Carla Bley Big Band and others.
Originally recorded Aug. 15, 1995. Originally broadcast Feb 24, 1996.
- "Major" (C. Bley)
- "King Korn" (C. Bley)
- "Carnation" (S. Swallow)
- "Sing Me Softly of the Blues" (C. Bley)
- "Romantic Notion #3" (C. Bley)
- "Instant Romance" (M. McPartland)
- "Chopsticks" (E. Allen)
- "Ida Lupino" (C. Bley)
- "Ad Infinitum" (C. Bley)