1. Carla Bley gets into her stride

Indonesian Dock Sucking Supreme 

from Carla Bley: Tropic Appetites. (1974)

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/369qCnrIrNhQCVzGEYWatw

The title gives a flavour of this recording – Carla Bley’s second collection of compositions setting words by Paul Haines. It’s often heard, I think, as a sort of footnote to her sprawling megaproject Escalator Over the Hill. The band (a sextet) is smaller; the words – drawn from Haines’ time in Bali – are (mostly) easier to follow than the fragments pieced together for Escalator. But the overall concept of a suite of new music woven around text fragments that are connected is similar.

I recall I listened to it more than its predecessor when I first laid hands on it, and I now think it stands up better than the larger work, which was Bley’s first recording of her own stuff after establishing herself as a notable jazz composer in the ‘60s. There you are sometimes waiting for the good bits. They abound, but there is a lot to get through – six sides of vinyl. Appetites, is shorter, more unified, and has nothing you’d want to leave out. Most of the time it takes one of the several soundworlds explored on Escalator, and develops it. The features of that world, the rich orchestration, detailing of textures, calliope sounds, oompah rhythms, and a few clever Stravinskyisms, became more familiar in Carla’s work later in non-vocal projects, but this is their first full expression. They were her unique take on the radical eclecticism – sometimes embracing corn, sometimes obsessing about exoticism, leaning free but usually happy to embrace a fine melody line – that characterised much of the work of the players who gathered around the Jazz Composers Orchestra in the 1970s.

Even with a small band, with Howard Johnson doing wonders on multiple instruments (tuba, clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano, baritone and bass sax – if Bley didn’t have the budget for an orchestra she worked you hard) and session player Toni Marcus playing some gorgeous violin, it’s a beguiling mix. There are solos from Bley’s partner Michael Mantler on trumpet, Dave Holland on bass (and taking on a touch of Jack Bruce’s sound here and there on electric bass) and the incandescent Gato Barbieri – uncredited originally for contractual reasons – in his Ayleresque prime on tenor sax. Bley has always had an ear for distinctive soloists, and Gato’s role here is somewhat similar to Gary Valente’s in later bands, where the trombone dial was always turned up to 11.

Finally, the crowning glory, Julie Tippetts voicing Haines’ words. Like some others here she’s happily still active (I’m getting email updates on a project where she will add duo vocal to piano tracks by her late, lamented partner Keith when studios are accessible again) but this early gem is some of her finest work. It must have been hard to do, laying down a vocal track in London, thousands of miles from the ensemble, but it is transfixingly good. You’d swear she must have been in the same room as the band.

She’s not present all through – the first track is an extended instrumental and others have vocals from the band – but her pellucid, perfectly paced delivery is one of the things that drew me back again and again. It still does. Some of the time she draws on the soul power that first got her attention in the British pop world. More often she keeps that power damped, as if musing on the enigmatic lyrics: she knows  what they mean even if you don’t, quite. 

She begins this track almost solo, Bley sounding a single piano chord per bar, establishing a dreamy, steamy langour that fits the tropical motif. There’s some light orchestral decoration and she’s joined briefly by Johnson’s unschooled vocal. Then the mood jumps as the keyboards go electric, the whole band kicks in at 2.34 and Barbieri launches another scalding solo with violin, bass and drums churning beneath him. There’s some exciting bass and drum work, and we hear Julie again at the close.

It’s a good representation of the set, I think, but sounds even better as part of a play-through. Listening now, I appreciate some things more, especially the subtlety at every moment of Paul Motian’s drumming. Also the way the band work together on the charts, which are complex but always seem to complement the words perfectly. Looking back, I suspect that until my mid-20s – maybe later – I mostly heard music just noticing whatever was most prominent in the mix from moment to moment. Now I feel I’m better at hearing the whole sound. Still, I found something special in this offering, and affirm that it sounds as good now as it did 45 years ago.

here’s the full album

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1621MKV5kLuNFQxNicuuYH

Why the no 1?

This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

2 Comments

  1. What a great idea to select a 52 album magnum opus! And what a great start: has sent me back to my (battered) vinyl of Tropic Appetites which hasn’t seen a stylus for far too long. I had forgotten what a brilliant album this is. Thanks for the memory jog. As a bit of fun I started to ponder what album an algorithm would select to follow this one. If algorithms can pick up on Barbieri’s searing sax and the interesting sound palette, it might play the Don Cherry Blue Note Symphony For Improvisers.
    Eagerly awaiting week 2.

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