100 Jazz Profiles
1938 - present
Composer and pianist. One of the most distinctive and unusual composers in jazz, Carla Bley currently leads an international jazz orchestra that is the culmination of a long career that has mingled playing with bandleading and composing. She grew up on the West Coast of the USA, where her father was a church organist and pianist, but although he gave her early lessons, she was largely self-taught.
She moved to New York in 1957 , where she married pianist Paul Bley, and began composing. She wrote for and played in small groups in the early 1960s, and then in 1964 became co-leader of the Jazz Composers' Orchestra. (Her second husband trumpeter Mike Mantler was the other joint leader.) With this band and in her other work of the time she was playing very free jazz, but by 1967 had moved towards writing more formal compositions, and A Genuine Tong Funeral (recorded by Gary Burton) was her first great masterpiece.
She went on to write the vast jazz opera Escalator Over The Hill, and much music for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. From the mid-70s, her own bands have been the main platform for her music, ranging from small groups with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, to full-size big bands. More recent albums such as Big Band Theory (1995) have been widely acclaimed, and her 1996 Goes To Church is a marvellous memento of a live gig by the big band, with scorching solos by trombonist Gary Valente mingling with Bley's piano.
Ian Carr: Carla Bley in Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather and Brian Priestley: Jazz The Rough Guide (London, Rough Guides) 2000
Goes To Church (Watt 27)
Suggested track: Who Will Rescue You
Official website of ECM who distribute Bley's Watt label, with comprehensive discography
on radio 3
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