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After “Looking for America”, an album for big band that had taken three years to write, I had to look for a new project. It was time to do something with a small group. Playing duets with Steve Swallow was too hard, and Steve and I had already toured and recorded as a trio with Andy Sheppard. The next size up was a quartet. The obvious move was to add Billy Drummond, who had already played drums with 4 x 4 and the big band, to the trio.

When my agent in Europe asked me what the group would be called, the answer came to me instantly: The Lost Chords.

I had come across the sheet music for a piece called “The Lost Chord”, by Sir Arthur Bliss when I was a child. With great excitement I’d played the piece on the piano, hoping to discover a chord that was more beautiful than any I had ever heard. Unfortunately, the harmonies were rather ordinary, and the memory of that disappointment must have stuck with me longer than I could have imagined.

For maybe the first time, the title for one of my pieces preceded its musical content. There was a dressing room piano at the last concert of the summer 2002 big band tour and, while everyone packed up, I decided to get ahead start on my next project. I sat there and picked out some inspired, lost-sounding chords. I had to spell out their notes with a blunt pencil on the back of a program, since I had no manuscript paper. When I got home I couldn’t find the program. Those seminal chords were truly and appropriately lost. But I managed to remember some aspects of them and immediately began work on the piece that was to become “Lost Chords”

The next to hatch was “Red”. It was named after a chicken I had befriended. It probably deserved a better name but I could never come up with one. I liked the fact that I couldn’t play the melody on the piano.

Then came the agonizingly long and difficult birth, or rather adoption, of “Three Blind Mice”. It was as difficult to play as it was to write. I gave Andy and Billy the hardest parts.

Since I seem to be talking about compositions as if they were flesh and blood offspring, “Tropical Depression” could be described as a foster child. Originally written in 1985 as incidental music for a mini-operatic version of “For Under The Volcano”, based on Malcolm Lowry’s novel, it featured Jack Bruce. When it was first performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles its name was “4/4 Under The Volcano”. Re-named “Tropical Depression”, it was handed from band to band for the next 15 years, until it finally found a home with The Lost Chords.

“Hip Hop” was written for big band, but we played it in a trio version first. When it didn’t make the cut for the “Looking For America” album, I knew it would be perfect for the quartet. And we already knew how to play it!

We always record more material than we need for an album, so there are always pieces that, for one reason or another, don’t make it. I often re-orchestrate these orphans for the next group. One of the pieces the quartet played that didn’t end up on the Lost Chords album was “Oni Puladi”. That poor piece (“Ida Lupino” played backwards) must be 30 years old and it still hasn’t been placed.

This album could be seen as a continuation of a search, from “Looking” to “Lost”. One small corner of American music.

Carla Bley

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