There may not be a more overlooked figure in modern jazz than Carla Bley. With a career that stretches back over 50 years and a resume that includes stints with John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce, Gary Burton and Charlie Haden, she should be one of the biggest names in jazz. Perhaps TUM Records new release Around Again will help change that.
Here, veteran drummer Barry Altschul teams up with pianist Iro Haarla and bassist Ulf Krokfors, two musicians who have collaborated extensively in recent years. On Around Again, this trio dives deep into Carla Bley’s songbook and takes her music into some interesting new places.
Opening with “Closer,” the trio sets the mood right away: slow, melodic and deliberate. Haarla teases out the melody, letting her piano notes linger while Altschul’s drumming pushes the music forward. It leads into a nice Krokfors solo before the group returns for a brief finish. This vibe continues throughout: “Vashkar” is taken almost at a snail’s pace, with Krokfor’s double bass taking the lead and Haarla’s playing having a slow, introspective vibe: listen carefully, and you can hear Bill Evans’ influence on her playing.
Right away, longtime jazz fans will notice how this trio is treating Bley’s material. For example, Tony Williams Lifetime famously covered “Vashkar” on their loud, bombastic record Emergency. But here, the music isn’t just acoustic, it’s focused on the interplay between these three, with players dropping out for a solo, and then kicking back in at just the right moment. Sure, Haarla and Krokfors have recorded together a bunch, but Altschul’s drumming is sympathetic: he’s all over his kit, riding the toms and lightly crashing his cymbals, but never overpowers the other two players.
Perhaps the most effective performance on this record is their version of “Olhos De Gato,” a song with one of Bley’s most memorable piano phrases. Here, however, the band slowly eases into the song: it opens with a drum solo, and then the main figure is played on the double bass. Haarla doesn’t even play the main theme until halfway through the song, Compared to other versions – say, Paul Bley’s – this version is moody and introspective, and thus sounds fresh and compelling.
It works in other places, too. “Ida Lupino” is stretched out, with Haarla playing so slowly she’s almost teasing the listener. Her notes ring and hold in the air while Altschul and Krokfors keep the rhythm going. It builds into a nice piano solo, where Haarla’s playing darts and moves around, tackling the melody from several angles.
On Around Again’s 12 tracks, the trio does an effective job at interpreting Bley’s music, which means that even longtime fans will find something to like here: it’s interesting to hear Bley’s music, often played with a quirky sense of humour or arranged for eclectic lineups (The Liberation Music Orchestra, Carla Bley’s Very Big Band, etc) not only stripped down, but played with a moody, introspective vibe that casts some music in a new light. Conversely, people new to Bley – be they curious after reading about her in the New Yorker or just by a name that keeps popping up in album credits – have a nice primer to her music here.
Perhaps someday, Bley herself will settle down and record solo piano versions of some of her most famous songs: she’s certainly never shied away from re-arranging them for her many bands over the years. But even now, in her eighth decade, she keeps pushing ahead and composing new music. So until then, it’s nice to have a record like Around Again. Recommended.