Arts: The sweet sound of paradox

Feted in Europe as a major jazz composer and performer, Carla Bley has found little acclaim at home. Can she really be too adventurous for the United States?
"What is that thing when you have to stomp on idols?" Carla Bley's jet-lagged brain looks for the word that best describes her 40-year career in jazz. She and her partner, bassist Steve Swallow, have just got back from a week in Frankfurt with the Radio Big Band. If she's tired, she doesn't let it show as we talk.

Iconoclast. It says as much about her personal philosophy as her musical style. At home in the States you might think it would get her noticed. Fact is it largely gets her ignored. "I mean I'm not happy about it, but that's just the truth. I don't work a lot in the States. I don't teach at a school. I don't live in the city, go to parties or anything. So, I have a non-existence in the States."

And that means Carla Bley does perform fairly often in Europe with her big band or with a small group. Our immediate reason for talking is that she's playing the Festival Hall on Saturday with Steve and our own Andy Sheppard as part of the London Jazz Festival. They came together in 1994 to tour and record the CD Songs With Legs.

The project came about partly because of Carla's lack of confidence in her own abilities as a piano player. Andy had joined the big band in 1988 at Steve's suggestion. "Steve had produced a couple of Andy's records and told me, `You're going to love this tenor player. He doesn't sound like John Coltrane. He sounds much more original than that.'

"So, I heard him and said, `Yup, I want him!' Then we had been touring in duet, and it was too much for me to play a solo every time. I needed someone to stand up and take the attention off me a little, and Andy was the perfect guy."

Bley is actually a strong if quirky soloist, but she is genuinely uncomfortable when her playing's in the spotlight. I point out that she got good reviews for Songs and the recent duet album with Steve, Are We There Yet? The response is dismissive. "On Songs, we had 14 nights to choose from. I could manage to play any song good one night in 14. Not being a soloist, I get distracted and all kinds of terrible things happen when I solo. But every once in a while, I come up with a masterpiece."

I'm not going to win this argument, and Carla even voices reservations about her own small group writing, only being completely confident in her big band work. "When I listen to the big band music I've written, I feel it's really great. With smaller bands, if I'm competing against Horace Silver or somebody, I feel insecure, but with the big band, I can't imagine who I couldn't compete with at this moment."

It's like there's a series of paradoxes to Carla Bley, one nestling inside the next. Idiosyncratic but not eccentric. Independent but also quite diffident. On stage, the larger the group, the more relaxed and confident she is. "Duet is the hardest format because I have to do a solo on every tune. The easiest is Escalator Over the Hill, because I just conduct, and everything in between depends on how many solos I have to take."

But she loves to tour. Virtually all her records are live performances. She got the touring bug fairly late in her career. Jack Bruce had performed on her jazz opera ("my Sergeant Pepper") Escalator Over the Hill, and in 1974 repaid the compliment by asking Carla to join his band. "That was so much fun that when I got home, I thought that's what I wanted to do - tour the capitals of Europe, stay in fancy hotels, drink gin and tonics for breakfast, smoke cigars and ride in limos."

Since then, she's toured pretty constantly. There are even stories of her daughter, Karen Mantler, sleeping in a cot under her piano on stage - one solution for a working musician unwilling to be separated from her child.

However successful she's been, Carla Bley has never had major label backing. In 1973, she and second husband Mike Mantler formed their own record company, Watt Works. But if the money from a major would have been nice, it would also have interfered with a need for independence that comes across the whole time.

Bley grew up in a small, devoutly religious community in California, but by the age of 12 had rejected religion. That takes personal strength - though a sense of humour helps. "Yeah," she recalls. "I lost my religion when I started roller-skating."

In fact, Carla Bley's story would make a great movie - from roller-skating champion (yup!) to working as a cigarette girl in the jazz clubs of New York. It would tell how she met her first husband, the Canadian pianist Paul Bley, and how people like George Russell, Jimmy Guiffre and Art Farmer recorded her compositions. It would take in her role in the infamous Jazz Composers' Orchestra, and tell how Gary Burton recorded her brilliant extended work "A Genuine Tong Funeral" in 1967 at the suggestion of his bass player, Steve Swallow. And it would talk about how she developed into one of the major composers in contemporary music. Bet no one back in Oakland, California would have predicted that.

In a lot of ways, the early experience of bebop has been more important in her work than the elements of European art music that critics pick up on. "When I started being interested in jazz, the musicians I adored were the black heroes of bebop. When I started out checking European roots, that was quite late in my career, in the Sixties or Seventies. In the beginning, I just loved the beboppers. They were the only ones I knew."

She admires writers like Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster and Quincy Jones: "People that came from a playing point of view, and knew how to make the players sound good and what was comfortable to play." It's the sense of playability - which comes from jazz rather than from art music - that distinguishes Carla Bley's writing. She writes for her soloists. Whether it's in a trio, a small group or big band, she creates settings that afford them the opportunity to give their best stuff.

And if she's a brilliant big band writer, she's also a truly gifted miniaturist. That links her to Ellington, someone she detested on principle for a long time. "I just thought it was a good idea that somebody hated Duke Ellington. I thought Billy Strayhorn was the real genius." An error, perhaps, but one that reinforces the impression that Carla Bley is very much her own person - even when she's wrong.

I wonder if she's easy to live with. She and Steve Swallow have been together for a long time, and have known each other for even longer. I ask her what it's like working with someone who's both a life as well as a musical partner.

"Well, I get to take him everywhere with me. He doesn't take me with him because he works with a lot of people. I'm just one of his accounts! I could say that it's more a romantic thing that we play together like one person, but it's not my style to say that. But it is wonderful to be on stage with him because he's a great bass player, and even if I weren't sleeping with him, I think I'd still like to play with him."

Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow and Eberhard Weber: RFH, London, Saturday, as part of the London Jazz Festival (0171-960 4242)