Carla Bley, prolific and expansive jazz pianist, dies at 87

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Carla Bley performs in Good, France, in 2009. Valery Hache/AFP by way of Getty Photographs conceal caption

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Valery Hache/AFP by way of Getty Photographs

- Carla Bley, prolific and expansive jazz pianist, dies at 87

Carla Bley performs in Good, France, in 2009.

Valery Hache/AFP by way of Getty Photographs

Carla Bley, the pianist behind a few of the most beloved compositions within the jazz canon, who recorded over two dozen albums between 1966 and 2019, died Tuesday. Her demise was confirmed by her husband and longtime collaborator, bassist Steve Swallow; the trigger given was issues from mind most cancers. She was 87.

Bley was a pressure in jazz even earlier than she made her first albums, her compositions recorded by notable modernists of the Nineteen Sixties. Inside a number of years, she grew to become each a recording artist in her personal proper and an activist for impartial musicians, co-founding the group The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (JCO) in 1965 and the nonprofit distributor New Music Distribution Service in 1972, each together with her second husband, trumpeter Mike Mantler.

Carla Bley was born Lovella Might Borg on Might 11, 1936, in Oakland, Calif. Her father, Emil Borg, was a piano trainer and church organist, and gave Bley her first classes. She left highschool earlier than her junior 12 months and shortly was in New York, the place she discovered work — and invaluable publicity — as a cigarette vendor on the Birdland Jazz Membership.

It was throughout her time in New York that she met her first husband, fellow pianist Paul Bley, who inspired her to start composing. Her first recorded piece, “Bent Eagle,” got here courtesy of George Russell in 1960 for his Riverside album Stratusphunk. Over the subsequent decade-plus, artists together with Jimmy Giuffre, Don Ellis, Artwork Farmer, Steve Kuhn, Gary Burton and Tony Williams would all report her work. Her items may very well be ethereally lovely or subversively brash, however all the time discovered a grandeur with out tilting into pretension, a top quality mirrored in her economical piano enjoying.

Her personal recording profession started in 1966 with an album for Fontana, that includes Mantler and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Subsequent got here the mammoth three-LP set Escalator Over the Hill, co-credited to Bley and poet Paul Haines, and launched by the JCO home label. Recorded between 1968 and 1971, the album featured greater than 40 contributors, amongst them bassists Charlie Haden and Jack Bruce, saxophonist Gato Barbieri, guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Don Cherry, keyboardist Don Preston and vocalist Sheila Jordan.

Bley and Mantler based their very own report firm, WATT, in 1972, and it grew to become her predominant outlet from 1974’s Tropic Appetites by 2009’s Carla’s Christmas Carols, the latter made with the Partyka Brass Quintet. All through the years, she saved evolving — recording three albums for ECM in a trio with Swallow and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and main a horn-heavy ensemble within the Eighties and ’90s, considered one of her most enduring initiatives.

Along with Swallow, Bley is survived by her daughter with Mantler, the pianist and vocalist Karen Mantler. Her compositions have continued to be recorded by quite a few artists nicely into this millennium: In 2022, guitarist Steve Cardenas, saxophonist Ted Nash and bassist Ben Allison launched Therapeutic Energy (The Music Of Carla Bley) on Sunnyside Data.

Past her consistency, Bley was recognized for her humor. In a 2003 dialog with New Music USA, she mused that her chosen style typically allowed her to play quick and unfastened with the function of the composer, leaving the heavy lifting to her ensembles: “You possibly can depart an enormous gap and so they simply fill it proper up. … After I began, I used to jot down this tiny snippet of an thought after which they might play free for a half an hour after which they’d play the snippet once more on the finish. And that was my piece.”

On the identical time, her dedication to adventurous craft was hardly ever doubtful. One in all Bley’s most vital alliances was with Charlie Haden and his Liberation Music Orchestra, intermittently lively from 1969 till Haden’s demise in 2014. When the group’s closing album, Time/Life, was launched by Impulse! in 2016, she instructed Nate Chinen at The New York Instances that she’d exerted somewhat further compositional pressure onto the notes of the title monitor.

“I am making an attempt to stretch my harmonic palette to some notes that do not belong,” Bley stated. “Within the piece I wrote for Charlie Haden, there’s one notice that is actually unsuitable. That is the wrongest notice I ever wrote. And I made it proper.”


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