Every fan has his or her great White Whale--the beloved but never seen performer. For a longtime, mine was Bob Dylan (I missed him in Chicago in 1974 because my letter was posted an hour too early). At one time or another, my list has also included Frank Zappa, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Don Byron, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, Archie Sheep, Sonny Rollins, and Phillip Glass, among others. Carla Bley has been a member of that august group for many years. I had to travel to Turkey to see her former (and sadly late) husband Paul Bley and Charlie Haden, where I also heard Jack DeJohnette with a group of Turkish traditional drummers and percussionists. Shepp disappointed in Vienna--he missed a connecting flight--but I eventually caught him in Paris with Joe Louis Walker.
I first became aware of Bley when I purchased Escalator Over the Hill shortly after it was released in 1971. Bley was listed on the gold embossed cover (a three-disc box set) as one of the composers. I had no idea what it was all about, but with that title how could I pass it up? Certainly not one of my favorite album, although on a recent listening, it sounded pretty tame after all these years. The performers included Jack Bruce, Linda Ronstandt, John McLaughlin, Don Preston, Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry, LeRoy Jenkins. Roswell Rudd, and Charlie Haden. Yes, Linda Ronstandt then of the Stone Poneys.
The two tracks that caught my attention were A. I. R. (All India Radio) and Rawalpindi Blues. A.I.R. is one of my first memories of cascading piano notes and what many describe as the Coltrane sound (fed through the horn of a snake charmer). If you haven't heard the composition, may I suggest Witchi-Tai-To, a 1974 release on ECM by Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet, where you will hear a masterful version of A.I.R., along with other fantastic work. Still probably my favorite jazz album, which also places Garbarek on my Great White Whale list. My friend and I had just bought the album, so we were listening to a tape of it when we drove off on a Wednesday morning in 1975 to attend the Newport Jazz Festival in New York City, where we saw Eubie Blake, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Dianna Ross, Charles Mingus, and countless other musicians.
Flash forward a few decades, and I re-encountered Carla Bley, now married to bassist Steve Swallow. They have been putting out some fantastic duets and trio albums for many years, all of which I own and none of which sounds anything like Escalator Over the Hill. I wasn't going to miss her performance at this year's festival, particularly because she was conducting the latest incarnation of the late Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, I was, however, a little disappointed when I read the word "conducting," because I wanted to hear her play piano.
So when Bley walked on stage and sat down at the piano, you can only imagine my delight. During the course of the hour + performance, the audience listened as an orchestra comprised of largely young musicians performed America the Beautiful, Amazing Grace, Blue in Green, Song for the Whales, and two others. The instrumentation included a tuba, french horn, trombone, two saxes, I think two trumpets, a bass, drums, and guitar. Wow.
The evening's other pleasure came from Tarbaby, featuring the great Oliver Lake as the guest saxophonist, Nasheet Waits on drums, Eric Revis on bass, and Orrin Evans on piano. The band plays hard edge jazz, slightly bent, which is always engaging. I particularly enjoyed the number where the band would shout in unison. Both Waits and Revis are photogenic musicians with their movements and facial expressions.
For me the least interesting performance of the evening was Benny Golson, who admittedly is a great sax player and equally great composer (Whisper Not, Killer Joe, and Along Came Betty are among his more famous compositions). During one of his discourses, he explained the difference between jazz and classical music--in essence, a performance of a jazz composition is never the same while the a classical performance requires exact duplication of the notes that comprise the score. Bottom line: Golson should stop doing the equivalent of a classical music performance during a jazz performance. I've heard the Mr. P.C., practicing with John Coltrane, Lawrence Welk, Clifford Brown, and other stories too many times. But as one of my fellow photographers said, "If you haven't heard those stories before, it is thrilling, but you are right." Despite my beef, Golson's set was accomplished and enjoyable. You've got to give him credit: At 87, he is still blowing strong and is always very photogenic, moving with the grace of a dancer. One added treat that came with Golson was hearing the great Buster Williams on bass.
Click on a photograph to enlarge it.