Carla Bley Looking For America Review

Album. Released 2003.  

BBC Review

Carla Bley warms up the big band for her dissection of American patriotic song.

Peter Marsh 2003

If the old cliche about Americans not having a sense of irony is true, then Carla Bley is the exception that proves the rule. For over three decades she's been building a body of work that's by turns surreal, wry, daft, sardonic, and resists most attempts at description. Though tunes like "Ictus", "Jesus Maria" and "Sing me softly of the Blues" are among the most gorgeous I can think of in the contemporary repertoire, sometimes Bley's own arrangements of them have been deliberately ugly, cheesy affairs. It's hard to know what to make of it all sometimes.

Looking for America is Bley's dissection of American patriotic song. It's an ideal vehicle for her playfully subversive talents, and came out of a realisation that she'd been doing this sort of thing for a long while (since the days of Escalator Over the Hill). The centrepiece is the National Anthem Suite, which slowly feeds the Star Spangled Banner (and the Canadian National Anthem)through a mangle, twisting it into passages of brassy, vulgar funk stuffed with blurting trombones and keening trumpets, or dropping down to lovely episodes of softly duelling saxophones. Like other popular recastiongs of National Anthems, her treatment hovers between parody and an attempt to find some beauty within the tune.

Many Bley regulars are here; trombonist Gary Valente, trumpeter Lew Soloff and the saxes of Andy Sheppard and Wolfgang Puschnig. The ever dependable bassist (and Mr Bley) Steve Swallow provides an elegant, precise fulcrum for Bley's arrangements. Her skills are predictably sharp, marshallingconsiderable forces with precision, yet loosening the reins enough to allow inspired contributions. The material ranges from the sweet, Cubanesque groove of "Los Cocineros" toaromp through"Old MacDonald had a Farm", which gives Valente plenty of opportunity for his trademark gutbucketebullience.

The highlights though are the four "Mother" pieces dotted throughout the record ("Grand Mother". "Step Mother", "Your Mother" and "God Mother"). Each is an elaboration on a simple, aching theme carried by the brass (and more than a little reminiscent of Gil Evan's later work as well as Bley's own Social Studies). Unforced, delicate stuff; this is Bley at her best.

The sleeve carries the caveat that "The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the musicians in the band or the record company". Inscrutable to the last then...

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