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)

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform