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Carla Bley's Trio Brings A Scaled-Down Dynamic To 'Life Goes On'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For decades, jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley led big bands. More recently, she's toured as part of a quieter trio with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of their latest, "Life Goes On."

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY TRIO'S "LIFE GOES ON: AND ON")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley's big-band music gets compared to Nino Rota's bustling scores to Fellini movies - lots of action and instrumental color. Now that she's miniaturized her concept to trio size, writers invoke Erik Satie, French composer of droll, deceptively simple, repetitive to the point of maddening piano pieces grouped in little suites. That could describe the music on Bley's new album "Life Goes On," with her pal and partner Steve Swallow on bass guitar, plus English saxophonist Andy Sheppard, their ally for 30 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY TRIO'S "LIFE GOES ON: AND THEN ONE DAY")

WHITEHEAD: Playing bass guitar, Steve Swallow brings out the bass and the guitar with a distinctive sandalwood tone. He can sneak away from the bass function without it feeling like the bottom's falling out. And then he'll sneak it back in. Carla Bley doesn't spotlight her piano much, the better to listen to the other guys. Andy Sheppard has a bright, perky tone on soprano sax that lends itself to the jocular material. And his lyrical, soft-tone tenor suits Bley's pretty ballads.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "BEAUTIFUL TELEPHONES (PT. 2)")

WHITEHEAD: There are three suites of music on Carla Bley's new album. One is called "Beautiful Telephones," a dig at the chief executive's love of shiny baubles. On one section, she weaves a number of patriotic songs into her solo, as if in disdainful reproach. That's fainter protest music than the revolutionary anthems she used to bat out with the Liberation Music Orchestra, but it's consistent with the trio's scaled down, inside-voice dynamic.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "BEAUTIFUL TELEPHONES (PT. 3)")

WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley's late phase brings her full circle. She'd started out writing for Jimmy Giuffre's trio with a similar lineup and even the same bass player, Steve Swallow. Then as now, she wrote catchy tunes built on almost nothing, some little scrap of melody, maybe, repeated and grudgingly developed until she had something you couldn't get out of your head. On the last part of her "Copycat" suite, the musicians echo each other the way the melody echoes itself. And then when you'd expect some contrast, she keeps plowing straight ahead and makes it work.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "COPYCAT: COPYCAT")

WHITEHEAD: After playing this music on the road, Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow recorded "Life Goes On" in May 2019. That was the month Bley turned 81, still writing fetching tunes that may not look like much on paper but come alive in performance. For Carla Bley, that's business as usual. In life, as in the music, keep following those cycles around with minor variations and little improvements, and you'll get someplace, day by day. That's how life goes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "LIFE GOES ON: LIFE GOES ON")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Life Goes On," the new recording by the Carla Bley Trio. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be tech writer Steven Levy, whose new book about the history of Facebook is based on hundreds of interviews with former and current employees, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Levy will talk about the company's enigmatic leader, its drive for expansion and how Facebook has responded to numerous controversies. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "LIFE GOES ON: LIFE GOES ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.