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Carla Bley and the Lost Chords, Cheltenham, May 2

May 5, 2010

Very selective at Cheltenham this year – for reasons which don’t belong here – so just the one gig. (Might have been two but Fly were sold out because on in the smallest venue. A programming fail there as they were the best band on offer, by my guess).

But Carla Bley is at least reliably good. Perhaps too reliable in that this ensemble (the core quartet who have been together for ages, plus the splendid Italian trumpeter Paulo Fresu) have not really moved on since their recording of five years or so ago. We heard most of the same tunes again, so at least they were at home with the material. And the material is reliably Carla Bleyish these days as well. Lots of mid-tempo, minor-key melodies, with plenty of room for conversation between the two horns, Fresu and the hard-working Andy Sheppard – a key Bley cohort for getting on 25 years now. A lot of it was quirkily ruminative, with occasional flashes of something more turbulent from Fresu, who has a little of Kenny Wheeler or Tom Harrell’s flair for melodic improvisation though is more mainstream than either of those players, and Sheppard. Bley’s music suits him very well, with that appealing mature style which is understated in a way that commands the attention for long stretches, then conveys real power when he finally goes more full-throated. Looking forward to his just announced artist-in-residence stint at St George’s in the Autumn.

They presented an absorbing 75 minute set (as usual Cheltenham asks you to pay a bit more for a bit less) and loosened up nicely toward the end with some engagingly playful stuff from the soloists, drummer Billy Drummond mostly in a supporting role (fortunately as the sound in the town hall tends toward muddy and the piano was already a bit hard to hear) and Swallow doing his usual unobtrusively virtuosic job on bass.

All very satisfying, unless you were mentally comparing with the life’s work. I was a bit. Even if you put from your mind that there was no Lew Soloff, Wolfie Puschnig or Gary Valente, the quartet lacks variation in sound – Sheppard stuck to tenor throughout and Fresu to flugelhorn apart from a couple of brief flourishes on trumpet. And the orchestral glories of Bley’s writing cannot really come over in this setting. Still, I suppose if Cheltenham can’t afford the big band, the octet, or even the sextet, then the quartet + 1 will do nicely to be going on with.

We might have lingered in the square for more, but the temperature on Sunday was far from festive. Outdoor music in England in May: bad idea. Took a small (and astoundingly cheap) pile of CDs home instead, which felt a curiously olde-worlde way to finish a jazz excursion in 2010.

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