Carla Bley: The Further Adventures of the Lone Arranger Carla Bley Recommendations

Sidebar 1: Carla Bley Recommendations

Carla Bley has been particularly fortunate in the recorded sound she has achieved through the years. Part of this stems from her grabbing the means of production early on by founding her own record label, WATT. As a result, she has been able to oversee all of the aspects of production—and, since she has her own studio installed in her upstate New York home, she has the luxury of working on a project until she deems it right.

"People don't realize that Steve Swallow has been the producer of every recording I've ever done. He knows the sound we're looking for. Since we record in studios all over the world, he works closely with the recording engineers, who don't necessarily realize, for example, that if you put a microphone directly in front of Gary Valente's trombone, he'll shred the diaphragm. Steve and Tom Mark [Bley's longtime in-house engineer] argue about this stuff all the time, but that's why the records sound as good—and as uniform—as they do."

That's certainly true—over the last 30 years and more than 20 releases, the recorded sound for a Carla Bley outing has been consistently warm and natural. Still, a catalog as densely populated as Bley's might prove intimidating to those who haven't experienced her music, so here are a few of my favorites.

4x4

Bley's newest disc not only features great, uncluttered sound and a wide dynamic range, it also gathers an eclectic collection of her tunes, including "Sidewinders in Paradise" and an homage to Matisse, "Les Trois Lagons." Her "Blues in Twelve Bars/Blues in Twelve Other Bars" is a hilarious romp that features spectacular solos from her entire front line.

Fleur Carnivore

A live recording with Bley's 15-piece big band. The sound is exceptionally clean and clear, with spectacular dynamics. "Healing Power" features not just one, but two powerful Gary Valente trombone solos that illustrate precisely what Bley means when she accuses him of shredding microphone diaphragms.

Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church

This live outing of the 17-piece band was recorded at Chiesa San Francisco Al Prato in Perugia, Italy, and, yes, the pieces all seem to hint at hymn melodies and church modes. This is particularly true of "Setting Calvin's Waltz," an episodic 24-minute work filled with witty, muscular solo vignettes from "her guys": Valente, Soloff, Sheppard, and Puschnig. Also featured is Bley's arrangement of Carl Ruggles' Exaltation.

Are We There Yet? (Carla Bley & Steve Swallow)

Bley says this release is it—she's not going to play duets any more. If true, that's a pity, because the two communicate on a level of musical intimacy seldom achieved. Swallow's athletic, soaring bass playing is never more melodic (which is saying a lot) than when he solos over Bley's rhythmic vamping. This is passionate jazz with the austere beauty of the best chamber music.

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