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A bouquet of songs for Carla Bley

David Redfern

Carla Bley — the endlessly inventive composer, arranger, bandleader, pianist and sometime vocalist — died earlier today, at 87. We wanted to take this moment to celebrate a cherished aspect of her work: her songs, which (alongside more elaborate or formal compositions) continue to resonate. Here are a few handpicked favorites.

Steve Kuhn Trio, "Ida Lupino"

One of Carla Bley's most recognizable originals, "Ida Lupino" takes its inspiration and name from a trailblazing Hollywood figure. I imagine Bley could relate to certain aspects of Lupino, a maverick artist and a woman who acted, wrote, directed and produced her own work in an industry dominated by men.

Bley wrote this memorable melody for her husband at the time, pianist Paul Bley, who recorded it in March 1964. That performance appeared years later on Turning Point, and Paul Bley also released "Ida Lupino" for a trio recording, Closer. Both versions are wonderful, but I've always enjoyed Steve Kuhn's trio performance with bassist (and Bley's future partner) Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca on Three Waves. When you hear the question "Is it now in season?" read in rhythm with the main melody, remember that Bley's music never goes out of season.
Josh Jackson, host of the Friday Mixtape

Carla Bley, "Lawns"

Carla Bley’s 1987 album, Sextet, was a radical departure from her more overtly daring efforts. According to some ears, the album was her attempt at a smoother, more commercial sound. But as a whole, the program endures quite well. “Lawns” in particular, among her finest and most memorable compositions, has recently unearthed the sentimentality of Kurt Elling, Ed Cherry and Terri Lyne Carrington featuring Samara Joy. Bley’s original version places the spotlight on fellow pianist Larry Willis, with her own hazy Hammond Organ accompaniment.
Greg Bryant, host of Evening Jazz

Gary Burton, "Dreams So Real"

The1977 album Dinner Music found Carla Bley for the first time presenting her own studio version of "Dreams So Real," a song previously recorded by Gary Burton a year prior on album of the same title. Where Burton's adaptation is presented in a stripped down manner, here, Carla serves it in a more pop-oriented fashion reminiscent of the classic rock era. The contrasts between the two, illuminating the wild versatility of Bley's compositional prowess. — Courtney Blue, host of Late Evening Jazz

Carla Bley, "Dinner Music"

The table is set. A smokey tenor sax (Carlos Ward) plays. Lights are low. But who's this secretive guest that adds to the intrigue? A mystery of wait and see/hear. A fine example of the madcap personality that Ms. Bley displayed in almost 60 years of composing. Her offbeat vocal makes you wish you were invited.
— Bob Craig, host of Voices in Jazz

Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow, "Life Goes On"

The final album released by Carla Bley was made with her longtime trio, featuring her partner Steve Swallow on bass guitar and Andy Sheppard on soprano and tenor saxophones. True to form, its track listing on Side A contains a wry joke: after "Life Goes On," we come to "On," "And On," "And Then One Day." But listen past the morbidity: in the moseying saloon tempo of "Life Goes On," and in the solos that Swallow and Sheppard fashion over Bley's left-hand ostinato, we hear a portrait of contentment in the blues. Don't overlook how many decades it takes to arrive at this level of enlightenment.
Nate Chinen, Editorial Director