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1 February 2010

Carla Bley Band - 'European Tour 1977' (Watt)

I've listened to this one about four times in a row now, hestitating to jot down these thoughts for some reason. There's nothing controversial about European Tour 1977, yet it's the only other Carla Bley record I own which means I will be leaving her work after this record... at least until the great Liberation Music Orchestra album which I have filed under H for Haden. So I'm savouring it somewhat. I think Bley is one of the most underrated of American composers. There's a liveliness here, cause it's a strong band (Andrew Cyrille and Hugh Hopper as a rhythm section, Michael Mantler, Terry Adams, Elton Dean as lead alto, etc.) and Bley's compositions are quite exuberant. She's actually rather uncompromising, despite the (relative) accessibility of her work. When separated from Paul Haines' lyrics, the pieces take on a much more freewheeling vibe. This manages to walk the ede of jazz and fusion pretty well - Dean and Hopper certainly give it that edge (plus the electric bass in general) but side two in particular has a more jazzy feel to it. 'Drinking Music' is named probably due to it's swerving, elliptical melodies. One can imagine these guys in some Bavarian beerhall during the recording of this. European melodies are all over Mantler's trumpet lines, which scream like a drunken toreador. But if you're thinking this record is going all Eurotrash, the closer, 'Spangled Banner Minor and Other Patriotic Songs' will dispel that. This is the avant-jazz deconstruction of 'The Star-Spangled Banner', and, you know, I think it gives Hendrix's version a run for the money. This track in particular does it for me, not that I really love these melodies in their original form but because I'm a sucker for big band jazz with large, strident melody lines. Ten people is big enough for me, and no one overplays. The middle movement of this slows to a crawl before building up around a piano arpeggio and sputtering towards its climax. I have a real tendency to associate good music with left-wing politics, and particularly to look for minor key themes in conjunction with overtly American imagery (such as John Fahey's America album). It's certainly easy to think "this music mourns the decline of morality in an empire" (or something like that) and I fear that this post may opt for that easy critical eye. But I also know what it's like to be an American in Europe, struggling with the conflicts of identity politics in a strange, chunky sea. And perhaps the American members of the Carla Bley Band in '77 were feeling that too - for me, I think it would come out sounding something like this, at least if I were a large jazz ensemble. But back to the music: I don't think there are any parts of this record that are completely improvised; in fact, most of side 1 feels tightly wound (and beautifully languid at the same time). Bley's organ blasts some funky clouds, especially when over the more rock parts -- perhaps this is something she developed in the Escalator days w/McLaughlin and Bruce. If so, they were great help because she's mastered the balance, at it all feels so seamless.

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