Patriot Games

Rejecting Bush Inc. and reclaiming American music, Carla Bley plays with the National Anthem

The centerpiece of composer Carla Bley's new ECM release, Looking for America, is a 22-minute suite in five movements dubbed "The National Anthem," which salutes the Stars and Stripes with an Ellington-like epic that alternately swings, struts, and soars. Like the best of Bley's book, the composition also smiles wryly at its source material, giving liberal listeners license to get their patriotic groove on without feeling self-conscious.

Given what flag-waving has come to represent, and considering that the 65-year-old jazz pianist turned big-band arranger has previously explored similar terrain as a way to express her "disappointment" with the government, one might assume that the CD's overall thrust is a cutting jab at Bush Inc. In a press release that accompanies the nine-song recording, however, Bley explains that the core material started taking shape well before 9/11, and if inspiration had struck "after the recent rash of aggressive actions by the present administration," she would have crumpled the piece up and started fresh.

"'The Star-Spangled Banner' just kept popping up in my head," Bley told me over the phone from her home office in Woodstock, New York, earlier this month. "I think the piece sucked before I got a hold of it; it was the corniest, most vanilla of national anthems. After I had done my job, though, I thought it was really beautiful. You could get sort of misty-eyed at the end. I mean, it actually touches something deep in my nationalistic psyche."

For Bley to blush red, white, and blue is momentous, in large part because this daughter of a church organist--who dropped out of school to work as a cigarette girl at Birdland in the Fifties, found inspiration from Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman in the Sixties, then cut her compositional teeth writing for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra album--has never really found an American audience, whereas acclaim has been on tap in Europe and Japan for years. Two years ago, in fact, she told her agent that despite the mediocre money, run-down hotels, and bland food, she wanted to take a 16-piece band on a stateside tour in 2003. Besides Tuesday night's show at Northrop Auditorium, however, only New York's Iridium has been willing to book the act. In part, Bley guesses this might have to do with ECM label-mate Dave Holland's decision to tour with his big band earlier this year, further limiting an already-limited interest in the sub-genre. "I'm going to have to have a few words with that guy," she jokes. "But seriously, there just isn't the money or interest. I give up on working over here. That's it."

The lack of enthusiasm is regrettable (it also says volumes about why domestic jazz labels have become so vocal, so retro-reactive). Bley's moving music is accessible and, dare I say it, rooted in Americana. Her earlier, more self-consciously "orchestral" music had a European flair; in large part she seemed anxious to distance herself from the formulas of the free-jazz movement. Over the past 20 years, though, more than a few critics have compared Bley with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. Of course, one should be careful when engaging in this sort of hyperbolic matchmaking in the name of descriptive expedience (as I admit to doing in the introduction to this piece). Ellington is more inventive than Bley, not to mention prolific; Mingus more bold. That said, Bley has developed a sonic, cinematic flair reminiscent of the Duke's more ambitious, stylized suites. Meanwhile, her most memorable melodies are marked by a Mingus-like ear for irreverence. "All my life, if I'm supposed to do something, I do the opposite," she says. "If something is sacred, I step on it."

It is in the way that Bley writes (and doesn't write) for her soloists that the comparison to the mavericks is most apt. Both Ellington and Mingus were among the first to begin sketching with very specific musicians in mind, trusting that an individual's sound, as well as his unique improvisational powers, would produce a certain energy or mood. Bley does the same, writing for a regular cast of characters, such as trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist Gary Valente (who kills on Looking for America), and her partner, bassist Steve Swallow--all of whom will be in Minneapolis this week.

"I want something different from every instrument," Bley explains. "On saxophone, I prefer a bluesy, pre-Coltrane type; so there's no stream of sound or playing up high. On trombone, the voice needs to be rough but musical--like Louis Armstrong in a way. On trumpet, I like a guy who is old-fashioned, a guy who can growl and play with a sense of humor. I like to laugh at the trumpet."

What the horns conjure up rarely catches Bley off guard, even though her charts are sparse, leaving wide-open spaces for soloists and lacking even rudimentary dynamics ("They just look at the notes and know what I want," she says). A piece is never really finished until the rhythm section takes a swing, however. And it's at that point the pianist hopes to be surprised.

"It's like the old Motown studio days or Stax Volt: The rhythm section comes up with a track all by themselves that just adds new dimensions," she says. "I mean, a rhythm section is like doctors and nurses--they can save life or kill someone."

 
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