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Carla Bley performs at Dazzle on March 24 and 25 with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard.EXPAND
Carla Bley performs at Dazzle on March 24 and 25 with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard.
Caterina di Perri/ECM Records

Carla Bley Plays the Big Band With Her Hands

Renowned jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley has recorded albums with her own big band and arranged and written music for Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, so it’s not surprising that when she performs with her trio, which includes bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, she approaches the music like a big band.

“I have to play most of the notes, because Andy and Steve can only play one note at a time and I can play ten,” Bley says. “So I get the worst jobs of all. I’ve got to be the soprano player with my pinkie of my right hand, and the finger next to that has to play the alto, and the middle finger plays the tenor, and then the index finger plays the first trombone. I could go down the instruments down my fingers at the same time.”

Bley says she’s got a big job to do. She’d much rather have a lot of people playing those things, but, alas, you’ll hear her playing all the background instruments.

“Andy’s playing all the solos and Steve’s the rhythm section,” Bley says. “We’re all sort of taking parts and responsibility for certain parts of a big band. But that’s loosely explained. I mean, maybe it’s not even completely true. It’s just an idea I have at the moment, that I’m playing the big band with my hands.”

It might sound like there’s a lot happening musically within the trio, yet a good portion of Bley’s most recent release for ECM, Andando el Tiempo, which means “with the passing of time,” is gorgeous, sparse and unhurried. It's also incredibly personal for Bley: The three parts of the title composition represent stages of recovery from addiction, all based on her experience watching a friend deal with alcoholism and come out the other end.

In a similar light, Bley says she’ll sometimes be inspired to write a piece about a person who has died. Immediately after hearing about the death of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden in 2014, Bley wrote the song “Time/Life,” which would become the title track for the Liberation Music Orchestra’s 2016 album of the same name that includes two tracks from Haden’s final performance with the group.

“That music came out of me just in a sort of, in the hour after I found out that he, as they call it, passed,” Bley says. “But he had passed. It sounds like an easy thing to do, but I think dying maybe usually is more like you don’t just pass, you sort of have like a long struggle, and then [it's] followed by something so terrible that you end up having to die in order to deal with it.”

At 82 years old, Bley says she can’t believe she’s still touring, playing mainly in Europe, hardly ever in the States, which makes her two nights at Dazzle on March 24 and 25 a rare chance to see the pianist.

“I can’t believe I’m still working, much less still here at all,” Bley says. “But I’m still on the road, getting on the stage, one place after the other, and I haven’t yet had any dementia. So I still know what pieces I’m playing. Maybe it’s taking a little longer to remember weird things like, ‘What is the name of that piece?’ But the musical part of my brain is still working.’”

The musical part of Bley’s brain started working fairly early while growing up in Oakland, California with a piano teacher and church choirmaster father who encouraged her to learn piano. When she was seventeen years old, she moved to New York City, and a couple hours after she arrived, she went to see Miles Davis perform at Cafe Bohemia. While a cigarette girl at Birdland in the early ’50s, she met jazz pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her to start composing since there was a demand for tunes at the time.

“He would say, ‘I need three or four tunes for tomorrow,” Bley says. “I got a record date with so and so.’ And I would just pump them out. They weren’t very long, but they were what he needed at the time. Ever since then, I’ve been sort of trying to write what the players need, because I know they get impatient if they have to sit at a desk and think up things — because they would much prefer to be standing up playing in front of people in an almost stream-of-consciousness way. That’s a different feeling than thinking, ‘Is that the right note?’”

Since then, Bley went on to work on multiple albums under her own name, with 1971's ambitious Escalator Over the Hill triple LP being her most famous; it featured Cream’s Jack Bruce, singer Linda Ronstadt, trumpeter Don Cherry and many others.

While Swallow became a member of Bley’s band in 1978, the two became romantically involved the following decade and began recording and touring as a duo, even playing a gig at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which Bley guesses was about three decades ago and was the last time she played in Denver.

About 25 years ago, Bley found it impossible to be the center of attention with the duo. “I would walk down, and the cameras clicking would be ridiculous,” Bley says. “I could hardly play with the attention I was getting.”

She really wanted someone to take the burden away from her, so she recruited the British saxophonist Sheppard.

“And I thought, 'Well, he’s a really great player. He sounds great. He looks great,’ Bley says. 'He’s standing up there in front of the audience, and I can do whatever I want to at the piano.' I could just escape being the center of attention. That’s why I did it.”

In May, Bley, Swallow and Sheppard fly to Lugano, Switzerland, to record their next trio for ECM. About four years ago, Bley finished an album’s worth of material called La Leçon Française for boy’s choir and big band.

“It’s just sitting there, because I can’t get the right choir together, and even if I did, we couldn’t go on the road with forty little boys and their mothers,” Bley says. “Can you imagine what a tour that would be? Plus a big band. It was unrealistic that I could get that done financially. So now I sort of like working [as a] trio. That’s one thing that I can do. It’s as small as I can get, the trio.”

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard, 5:30 and 8 p.m. Sunday, March 24, and 6:30 and 9 p.m. Monday, March 25, Dazzle, 1512 Curtis Street, $20 to $50.

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