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Remembering jazz composer Carla Bley

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Composer Carla Bley died in October at the age of 87. She led her own large and small touring bands from the 1970s until a few years ago, but jazz musicians had been playing her enigmatic compositions long before that. Today, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead traces Carla Bley's development as a composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY GIUFFRE'S "JESUS MARIA")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Carla Bley's "Jesus Maria," played by clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre with Paul Bley on piano in 1961. The tune shows Carla's knack for building a piece around one or two barely mutating phrases, giving improvisers shapes to develop and a mood to maintain. She'd been making up songs since she was small. While married to Paul Bley, he encouraged her to write tunes for him. Soon, more folks were playing them. Pianist Steve Kuhn played another deceptively simple sounding early Carla Bley tune, "Ida Lupino," with the Giuffre Trio's Steve Swallow again on bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE KUHN TRIO'S "IDA LUPINO")

WHITEHEAD: That melody ends with a whisper, an uncommon move. Carla Bley heard the value in being understated where some '60s jazz was all testosterone. In 1967, she wrote and arranged the album "A Genuine Tong Funeral" for vibraphonist Gary Burton. Her tune "Grave Train" evoked Nina Rota's music for Fellini films.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GARY BURTON QUARTET'S "GRAVE TRAIN")

WHITEHEAD: Howard Johnson on tuba, Jimmy Knepper on trombone, and once more, Steve Swallow on bass. In 1969, Bley organized bassist Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, which played her arrangements of Latin American revolutionary songs and a bit of her own droll music. She was learning to deal with larger forces and a light comic touch.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "THE INTERLUDE (DRINKING MUSIC)")

WHITEHEAD: Kurt Weill's German theater songs sound like an influence there. Bley's inspirations came from all over. Erik Satie's reductive piano music is in there, alongside Duke Ellington's reliance on key soloists. By the late '60s, Carla Bley was busy with a three-year project that was the opposite of understated - the guest star drenched, multifarious triple album "Escalator Over the Hill," with a huge cast including jazz luminaries and rock singers Linda Ronstadt and Jack Bruce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOCTOR WHY")

LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) Nurses dyeing their hair, don't care if the horse is locked, the house still there. It doesn't seem to matter to them the traces of horses.

JACK BRUCE AND LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) And pineapple and cheese, so many ingredients in the soup. On the hardwood floor. No room for a spoon.

WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley worked well with a few rock musicians, from NRBQ's Terry Adams to Pink Floyd's Nick Mason. She disparaged her own piano and organ playing, but a short stint in a 1970s Jack Bruce band gave her a taste for the road. She put together a little big band of nine or 10 pieces, booked her own tours and put out her own LPs. Bley's 1980 classic "Social Studies" had a few splendid tunes she'd revisit later. This is "Reactionary Tango" with Gary Valenti on trombone and old ally Steve Swallow now on bass guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CARLA BLEY BAND'S "REACTIONARY TANGO")

WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley wrote lovely charts, but there was often something tongue-in-cheek about them, like that dance academy tango beat. It's as if she worried we'd think she took it all too seriously. The orchestra kept growing, so she was calling it her Very Big Band. Then she scaled back to eight pieces, then four or five, finally two or three. By the 1990s, she and Steve Swallow were an item and toured as a duo, sometimes joined by saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Now understated Carla came back, playing some early tunes and new ones echoing old conundrums. It was as if her music had come full circle but now with more humor. Carla Bley died in October at 87, one of the great and singular jazz composers of our time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "COPYCAT: COPYCAT")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the books "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film," "Why Jazz?" and "New Dutch Swing." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our interview with Andre Braugher, who died last week, or Terry's conversation with David Byrne, who shares some of his favorite Christmas music, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. And for a look behind the scenes at the show, subscribe to our newsletter at whyy.org/freshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "COPYCAT: COPYCAT")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Millar. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.

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