Carla Bley: It was a productive winter. I had already written the better part of a long new piece for the quintet with Paolo when Steve Swallow asked me what the title would be. I replied that I had used the number five as much as possible. The choruses were either five, or multiples of five, bars long; many of the intervals were fifths; I hoped the piece would have five sections; one of the sections already written was in 5/4, etc. Maybe I could think of a title with five letters or five words or the actual word ‘five.’ (We were lying in bed and I was thinking out loud.) Better yet, why not use the word ‘quintet?’ Then I got stuck. “What kinds of things have five parts?” I asked Steve. “Hands,” he said. For some reason I instantly thought of the phrase ‘a hand of bananas.’ Bananas grow in bunches on the stalk and the bunches are often called ‘hands.’ “The Banana Quintet,” I said. “You know, like Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet.” I don’t remember if Steve laughed or groaned or simply thought I would think of a more dignified title later, but we changed the subject and the inspired title stuck. I even called the sections One Banana, Two Banana, Three Banana, Four, Five Banana and (unfortunately I ended up with six sections but I didn’t want to use that number) One Banana More. A few days later I realized that the children’s counting rhyme I was making reference to was One Potato Two Potato Three Potato Four, Five Potato Six Potato Seven Potato More. It had seven numbers and it wasn’t even about bananas. This was disturbing and almost caused me to rethink the title of the piece or, at least, to rename the sections. But before long the titles were baked in my mind. Steve and I were starting to learn parts of ‘The Banana Quintet’ and were casually referring to it as ‘The Banana’.
The piece called ‘Liver of Life’ was my first foray into two-horn territory. I had always wanted to use that title for something and now I had finally found a piece that could carry it. I hardly knew Paolo at the time but he seemed like a liver to me. Andy has always been a liver. (Steve and Billy and I are not in the same league as Paolo and Andy when it comes to living life.) I tried not to listen to any of the venerable trumpet / tenor sax quintets while starting to write for this group. I remembered that listening to the great string quartets had totally discouraged me from ever attempting to write for that formation.
A few years ago the Instabile Orchestra asked me to write a piece for them and I started it before any business details had been worked out. Unfortunately the commission fell through and I was left with quite a bit of music written for a project that no longer existed. The title of the work was ‘Death of Superman’, and was based on the life and death of Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in the movies made in Hollywood in the nineties. I had already extracted one of the themes and made it into a big band piece called ‘Someone To Watch’, and there was a part of the ‘Dream Sequence’ section that I thought would be perfect for Andy and Paolo. The title of that part was, and remains, ‘Death of Superman/Dream Sequence # 1 – Flying’.
A few words with Carla Bley
The closeness of sound that Andy Sheppard and Paolo Fresu share on this recording is a remarkable thing. They sound very much like one unit, extremely compatible in their approaches to their instruments. Was this a consideration from the outset, in inviting Fresu into the band?
It was the whole reason for the group. Andy really wanted Paolo. He didn’t come right out and say ‘Get me Paolo Fresu’. He just talked a lot about how close they were in terms of mystical considerations like playing the right note at the right time, which I found fascinating. But I would have given Andy Herb Alpert if he wanted him. Andy’s is one of my favourite musical voices, so I thought it would be a marvelous present to give him the guy he was always talking about. And since I happened to know Paolo Fresu’s manager, I thought there was maybe a chance to get him. And when I suddenly did, I was in shock, since I did not have an idea how he played or who he was or what kind of music I should write for him.
At this point, presumably you started listening to his records?
Yes I listened to everything I could. And the thing I was most impressed by was his recreation of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess”. I heard and couldn’t believe a musician would have the nerve to do that. And because it was so outrageous I liked it very much and I thought: that’s a very beautiful sound.
Some of the pieces you wrote for him and the band seem robust, even craggy in character. It doesn’t seem as if you are setting out to underline the softer side of Fresu’s sound.
Well, I didn’t feel I should over-encourage the muted trumpet ballad thing. So I guess I went the other way. But I don’t know if I really write ‘for’ people. In the end I usually do what I feel like doing. Andy Sheppard has had to put up with some very odd pieces that don’t suit him at all, but he finds his way around them, and puts his own stamp on them - and there’s the whole truth.
You make a point of keeping pathos on a short leash in your pieces. Overt sentimentality is avoided wherever possible.
I’ve hated that since I was a kid. I love being contrary and not doing the expected thing, but I haven’t always succeeded. Listening to an old recording recently I recognized that I was still playing with much too much expression. I’m trying now to get rid of any last wisps of it!
The central piece on the album is the modestly titled “Banana Quintet”. How did that develop?
I think I tried to start with what I thought Paolo sounded like. Paolo unadorned and beautiful. So I started with just him playing quarter-notes and after that was the ballad section of the first Banana. And then I stopped writing for him and just followed the piece because very strange things happened after that in the other Bananas which didn’t have anything to do with Paolo or even Andy. The piece just went where it wanted to go. One thing that no one’s mentioned to me yet is the Beatles quote, from “Abbey Road” in Banana # 4. I thought everyone would pounce on that. Follow the bass line and you can’t miss it.
You’ve described “Liver of Life” as your first foray into two-horn territory.
Hmmm. I was trying not use thirds in that piece. I wanted to do flat fives or awkward intervals, but once again that was reflecting my taste in music. Not necessarily Andy’s or Paolo’s. But we also play that old piece of mine “Ad Infinitum”...
Previously heard on “Dinner Music” and “Go Together”...
And that piece is all thirds. I hadn’t planned to include it on the album, but it just sounded so good when Andy and Paolo played it that we felt it had to be there. It seems to get to the essence of the way they play together, particularly in the exchanges where they keep moving forward, tossing the ball between them, without ever dropping it. It was so beautiful that I couldn’t wait to get through my solo to the tag so I could simply listen to them.
How was the recording itself?
We used Gérard de Haro’s Studio La Buissonne near Avignon. Paolo Fresu had done quite a lot of recording there and so had Andy, and Steve and I had mixed our (forthcoming) live big band album there. So it was a place we could all feel comfortable in. And Billy Drummond is a real audio freak, knows a lot about sound, loves all the ECM recordings, he knew which ones had been recorded in La Buissonne, so the process was very interesting for him too. My regular American engineer, Tom Mark, was in the middle of tearing down his old studio and setting up in a new place, so I really had to record somewhere else, and this was ideal for all of us. This is an elegant band, and it required an elegant recording...so here we have it.
Questions: Steve Lake