At age 82, Carla Bley has been around. But not everywhere. Remarkably, her two nights at Dazzle last weekend marked her first appearances in Colorado as a performer. Still, the depth and scope of her past music-making is unmatched by most musicians on the scene today. She thinks of herself primarily as a composer and in that role has written for big band, small ensembles and in between sized bands. Then there’s her sprawling jazz opera, Escelator Over the Hill, originally released as a three-record set in 1971.

For her Denver appearance, Bley brought her trio that she has recorded and toured with for many years; her long-time partner Steve Swallow on bass and Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano saxophones. The three created atmospheres and moods ocassionally swung and even ventured into the blues. After recording for years on the Watt record label that she and her former husband Michael Mantler started, her last two albums, featuring this same trio, have been on ECM Records. Indeed, this trio’s aesthetic is a perfect fit with the distinctive sound ECM has cultivated over the decades.

Bley composed all of the music on the program except for one, “Misterioso” by Thelonious Monk. That’s a tune Bley has played over the years, but it was also appopriate because much of Bley’s playing is influenced by Monk’s sound. In fact, the piano introduction to “Wildlife” had ta ouch of “Pannonica.” Her playing Sunday night eschewed flash and bombast, instead emphasizing the melodies of her compositions. She concentrated most on being part of the trio rather than stepping out in front and demanding the spotlight.

Although the arrangements left room for solos, the music was highly arranged and the musicians relied heavily on sheet music throughout the performance. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering the composer-focus of the leader and resulting complexities of the music. And those compositions proved to be continually intriguing. Bley deviated from the typical 4/4 rhythm of most jazz by importing an extra beat to vary the sound with 5/4 time on one tune. At another point, the trio ventured into the minimalist world by tucking into a somewhat repetitive and delicate groove that slowly morphed over time, seeming to take a page from Steve Reich or Philip Glass. And, on Monk’s “Misterioso,” the band dug into the blues during an extended improvisational mid-section.

Steve Swallow, 78, who has played Colorado a number of times in the past, including as part of the John Scofield trio about a decade ago, continued to provide a steady and creative undercurrent with his distinctive bass sound. He brought his electric five-string hollow body bass and used it primarily for single note runs. His newest innovation seems to be his visual transformation into Bernie Sanders.

Andy Sheppard, a mere pup at 62, brought along  both his tenor and soprano sax, but he clearly favored the tenor, picking up the soprano only briefly. He and Bley occassionally played in unison, but most often, he had the melody to himself. His solos were understated and melodic, often only a slight deviation from the main theme of the music.

All three musicians have enjoyed long careers and it’s a joy to hear them continuing to make relevant, vibrant music.

Carla Bley Trio
Dazzle, Denver
March 24, 2019
by Geoff Anderson, host of Tuesday edition of the Night Beat on KUVO Jazz

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