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Trios is the first of Carla Bley’s albums to be recorded directly for ECM. Although she has been part of the larger ECM story for forty years, and although much of her life’s work – documented on JCOA and WATT – has been distributed through ECM channels, Trios marks only the second time that Carla Bley and producer Manfred Eicher have been in the studio together (the first occasion being the 1982 recording of Charlie Haden’s The Ballad of the Fallen, for which Carla played piano and wrote arrangements).

On Trios Carla Bley – together with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard – revisits some favourite pieces in an album that pays particular attention to her qualities as jazz composer and highly individual pianist and emphasises the strengths of the trio. There is an elegance to the group sound, rooted in long years of reckoning with the material. Bassist Steve Swallow has been playing Carla Bley’s tunes since the early 1960s, and has been a member of all Bley’s touring bands since 1978. Andy Sheppard has been a regular Bley associate since 1987, appearing on a dozen albums since 1987’s Fleur Carnivore.

“A lot of my albums have a sense of things being about to fall apart. But the personality of this record is quite serious,” Carla says. “It’s also rather nostalgic. We’ve been playing in the trio format for 20 years now and we have a huge book of music. So in the studio in Lugano, we just started playing one tune after another and recorded the ones that Manfred was interested in. He chose each one, and we liked that idea. This was the first time in my life that I’d worked under the direction of a producer and I wanted to know what it was like, and what I could gain from it. He had some wild ideas – like starting with ‘Utviklingssang’, which we’d normally play after a few fast numbers, or as an encore...”

“Utviklingssang” is a Bley original that sounds like a Scandinavian folk song (the title means “Development Song” in Norwegian). She’d been asked by a promoter to write a piece with a Nordic flavour for a tour with the Scandinavian All-Stars, and refused, “but the piece came out of me anyway.” The piece was titled after Bley witnessed an Oslo protest march against the building of dams to generate more energy for Southern Norway which, it was said, would adversely affect wildlife in Lapland. It must rank amongst the prettiest of protest pieces. Stereophile magazine once hailed it as “a hushed, modal masterpiece.” “Utviklingssang” was first heard on record played by a nine-piece band on the Social Studies album (1980), then appeared on Duets with the irreducible core team of Bley and Swallow in 1988, and in an octet version on 4 x 4 (with Shepherd as one of the sax players) in 1999.

The oldest tune here is “Vashkar”, which many listeners first heard on Paul Bley’s landmark Footloose album in 1963, with Steve Swallow and Pete La Roca. Other iconic – and radically different – interpretations have included the Tony Williams’ Lifetime on Emergency, ushering in the first wave of electric jazz in 1969, and the delicate duo version by Gary Burton and Steve Swallow on ECM’s Hotel Hello in 1974. The composer’s own version is robust and buoyant. As with all her interpretations of her own work, Carla Bley keeps pathos and melodrama on short leashes. “We just play the music and take some solos,” she says drily. “We play it very close to the way it was written.” A vivid character sketch is conveyed. So who was Vashkar? “He was a friend of [poet and author] Paul Haines’. Paul liked him very much and was always quoting him. Vashkar said this, Vashkar did that. Vashkar takes two teabags in his teacup. And so on… So I wrote a song for Vashkar and it seemed to have a little bit of the flavour of that part of the world in it. And that was something that continued with ‘Escalator Over The Hill’ which was set in India, also influenced by the fact that Paul Haines was living in India at that time.”

The composition of “Les Trois Lagons” was commissioned by the Grenoble Jazz Festival. Bley was asked to choose a plate from “Jazz”, Henri Matisse’s book of cut-outs, and to write music inspired by it. She chose related plates, all called ‘Lagons’, and “wrote the piece while looking out the window at a real lagoon.” It was premiered by the Carla Bley-Andy Sheppard-Steve Swallow trio at the Grenoble Jazz Festival in 1996. “One of the things that I hoped to show with this new album was that some pieces that were later orchestrated in fact started life as trio pieces. In the case of ‘Les Trois Lagons’ the trio version is still, to me, the best. And I like this new recording of it more than the octet version on 4 x 4.”

The “Wildlife” suite comprised of “Horns”, “Paws Without Claws” and “Sex With Birds” was first heard, in a very different arrangement with synthesizer interludes, organ and brass on Night-Glo (1985). Bley: “This is one that is quite new for the trio. It took a long time to work out how to do it. The line-up that originally recorded it never travelled, and I wanted to give it some legs, bring it back into the repertoire.”

“The Girl Who Cried Champagne” has likewise been through varied reinterpretations from the sleek 1986 Sextet version with Hiram Bullock and Larry Willis to The Big Carla Band on Fleur Carnivore in 1989. Its title is an autobiographical reference: “I said I’d finished the piece, and usually when I finish a piece Steve (Swallow) buys me a bottle of champagne. But I hadn’t really finished – I was crying wolf. So from that time on I was The Girl Who Cried Champagne.“

The trio has a number of concerts in Europe in October and November culminating in a residency at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria, which will find Bley playing in different formats, augmented by strings for the repertoire of Fancy Chamber Music, and by brass group for Carla’s Christmas Carols.

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