Perfect Sound Forever

Looking Hard for a Drive-In:
Carla Bley's telescope eyes Chuck Berry's America

Photo courtesy of Watt/XtraWatt

article & interview by Phil Mershon (August 2003)

This is a time when global corporatism links a grotesque preponderance of its steel-eyed vision to the silly notion that anything produced by, for, or about American youth is de facto. In and of itself, a thing of incalculably supreme value (merrily ignoring the fact that little of substance has been created by anyone either under or over twenty-two in the last few minutes) from out the blue shines the cosmic explosion of Carla Bley. With Looking For America, an album that cups the most sacredly traditional of American musical themes, she tosses them way up in the middle of the air, and invigorates that same air with the senses of youth on the Fourth of July. Oh, it is so good.

Before we discuss precisely why it is that Looking For America is such a wise and wonderful work that quite obviously transcends market genre typology such as post-bop or conceptual instrumental or whatever inadequate label one might strive to affix, let us first answer the questions doubtless at the forefront of the minds of the majority of Americans in this here world: who is this Carla Bley woman and why should we care?

Q. Have you found America?

Carla: Absolutely not. No. I'm not really looking for it. I'm a composer. I spend my time looking for the perfect note. I guess what it meant, what it could mean, is where is the country we had after the Second World War? Where is the country that was always right?

Q. Have people suggested that your album was a response to September 11th?

Carla: As a matter of fact, I started writing the album a year-and-a-half before nine-eleven.

Q. Have you had an interest in the past in patriotic songs?

Carla: I think so. That's what they say. It's been pointed out to me that I'd written "Spangled Banner Minor and Other Patriotic Songs" [European Tour 1977], and I did a piece called "United States" [The Very Big Carla Bley Band].

American Product today is a virus, some aspects of which are nourishing, some of which debilitating. In the same way that a product like the McDonald's hamburger serves global functions (fast, cheap, easy), it also foments conflict (hideous architecture, monotony, obesity). American pop music is also a virus. Mainstream media reports to the contrary, there are few pockets of the developed world where even the most "underground" or "alternative" music products are inaccessible. Whatever the geographic origins of hyper-speed gothic death glam or symphonic bluegrass metal, the watered-down J. C. Penny's version is apt to be disseminated by someone in America, and by someone who is secretly hoping to further Americanize the rest of the world. If the rest of the world doesn't like it, they can just get out. And the rest of the world, oh, how to say it?--resents the attitude, even as they scarf it up. So while I embrace the proliferation of mindless penis-flogging music as much as anyone (I do, after all, own albums by Kid Rock--sometimes I even play them), there comes a point when all this cultural hegemony scares me to death. Maybe it's time we intensified the interior exploration of America. Just getting through the surface of our nation's spiritual, secular, industrial and creative accomplishments could take generations. It is on that fascinating journey that we have no choice but to meet Carla Bley.

Carla Bley was only three years old in 1941. It was at that age that she began studying piano with a church organist who just happened to be her father.

Q. On your current album, Looking For America, there are four songs with the word "mother" in the title.

Carla: It's not maternal at all. It was a piece I was working on for a couple of years and I could never get it to adhere to anything. It wouldn't stick. It just was the mother from which all these pieces came, and every time I'd finish one of those songs, I would go back to the mother lode. And finally all I was left with was this tiny piece that was the mother of it all. It was in four sections, and none of them developed because their offspring were missing. So I brought the four mothers together as interludes. That's all there is left.

Q. It really works.

Carla: I think it works because it adds a little bit more drama.

Q. What about the closing song, "Old MacDonald had a Farm"? It really swings. Carla: [Guitarist] John Scofield's wife Susan asked me to write a version of it.

By the time she was fifteen, she left Oakland to sell cigarettes at New York City's Birdland. There she was privileged to see and hear Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and even a fine pianist named Paul Bley, whom she married straight away. She paid the rent and taxes writing songs for her husband's trio and for George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, and Art Farmer. Ten years later, she and new husband Michael Mantler became the prime organizers of the Jazz Composers Orchestral Association (JCOA), a quasi-union that spawned the JCOA label which released albums by Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, and Bley herself. In 1973, they co-founded the Watt group for their own recordings.

Where we first meet her is on a massive engagement that culls together dozens of wild talents to transmit energy from one system of time to another. Escalator Over the Hill, a self-described chronotransduction, is among the purest of jazz recordings, in the sense that its meaning (as elusive today as at its 1968 release) is subordinate to what it evokes through the process of revealing itself to us. I mean, is the important thing about a movie like 2001 what it's about, or is the important thing that anyone who meets that movie even halfway is bound to experience a shortening in the distance between thought impulses and sensory overload? So it is with Escalator Over the Hill. Bley and her second husband, Michael Mantler, herded together an assortment of free jazz and avant garde aficionados called the Jazz Composers Orchestra, brought them into convoluted contact with poet/lyricist Paul Haines, and stirred the purposefully unstable pot with Jack Bruce, Linda Ronstadt, Viva, and lesser luminaries, revealing a startling, swinging, simultaneously galling and spellbinding windfire that quite possibly takes as much effort to "appreciate" as it did to create. "A monumental, Herculean work," said the Village Voice. "All the musical audacity of Sgt Pepper, with better performers," raved Time Out. "Makes me imagine what it would be like to start out at a California amusement park, fall off the coaster bare-ass naked into a five star hotel lobby, con Bob Dylan into buying my dinner, and finally waking up in an insane asylum for farm animals," cheered this writer, before even listening to the first of the three vinyl discs upon which this album was originally pressed.

Perhaps because Escalator's diverse ambitions are so vast, so global, the album is often ignored in discussions of jazz landmarks. Navigating the audial American highway, we meet signposts quite properly celebrating Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Because EOTH lacks, among other things, the unfathomable cohesiveness of the former and the historico-psychological unravelings of the latter, we have to kick aside sonic sagebrush and cacophonous candy wrappers just to get close to the tiny monument commemorating Carla Bley's first album. And that's a crying shame, because this pianist-composer-conductor gave us Ronstadt's voice approaching operaic majesty, guitars crackling and roaring like cat fight lightning, trumpets actually and consistently conjuring the astral sense of an escalator, and Charlie Haden's bass as less a vibratic bottom supporting this deluge of sound than as the swaying scenic bridge from which we observe the liquid conflagration.

Certainly, Haden's contribution in developing for jazz a new voice began years earlier in avant-garde, which, in the words of creative critical historian Gary Giddens, "rebelled against the half-measures of rebellion" initiated by bop. Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden's first album, sounded nothing like the bassist's previous work with Coleman. What it did sound like was a Carla Bley album. The band was big, the dissonance pervasive, and the conflicts eternal, or at least almost so. The anti-fascists battling Franco, the NLF resisting Johnson/Nixon, Chicago protestors unyielding to Daley's goon squad, all converged around the sound of no hands clapping. Charlie Haden doubtless desired, as he stated in the album's liner notes, a "world without war and killing," but conductor Bley drew in the sound imagery of struggle, betrayal and redemption--if Picasso's Guernica had a soundtrack, it would be this album.

Q. How much does your childhood creep up into what you do now?

Carla: So much. It's something that's always there.

Q. You started playing at an early age, didn't you?

Carla: At three.

Q. Church music?

Carla: Yeah. One of the first songs I did was "This Little Light of Mine." I would go around afterwards, collecting coins.

Q. Your parents encouraged you?

Carla: I had no choice. They gave me the cup and taught me how to play "Three Blind Mice." That's so weird. I just realized that was the first piece I played in public. Now I've written a very lengthy arrangement of "Three Blind Mice." B flat, A flat, G flat. It was very effective. I got a lot of coins.

Q. When did you move from Oakland?

Carla: As soon as I could. I think I was fifteen. I had to get out of Oakland because I didn't think the music scene was very good. My parents would take me to the opera and the singers couldn't even find their notes. We would go to a concert and it would be very low level.

Q. You spent time working and hanging out in jazz clubs in New York?

Carla: Yeah, I did. That's where I got my education. At Birdland. I heard everybody play, every night, every set. Opening til closing. Everybody in the world was playing at these clubs.

Over the next twenty-five years, Bley continued swimming in evocations, steadily sculpting less radical melodies, but always constructing those melodies in the least mechanical and most meticulously passionate ways. By the mid-Nineties, her "big band" had taken shape, and she took that shape to the Chiesa San Francesco Al Prato in Perugia, Italy, for the greatest concert of the big band's life. The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church takes variations on "Bringing in the Sheeves" and runs them all through a spiritual image processor while four trumpets, four trombones, a trio of saxophones, an organ and harmonica (both played by daughter Karen Mantler, although not simultaneously), bass (played by husband Steve Swallow), one flute and an extremely overworked drummer--I told you it was a big band--and elevates a wider swath of religiously inspired emotion than the Crusades and Reformation combined! Every instant of this album is divine, as Christ, Muhammad and a girl I knew in high school named Katie whisper encouragement directly into the players' souls. Gospel music that gooses even the most fey of priests into cutting a rug with some deep tanned hep cat, swing that never looses the gravity of its barroom cathedral beginnings, and soul that proclaims John Coltrane no less fiercely than the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section: this album is on God's jukebox. If we make the cut and earn the good uniforms, we get to hear it a lot after we die. Goes to Church may have been fathomed in an Italian cathedral, but the "Old Europe" resonates a distinctly American sound. If we must live in a new world where the taint of burger grease clings to even the most sacred of traditions, this instantly contemporary recording is the lecithin we need to purify our hearts.

So if the world just has no other damn choice than to be America, then everybody the whole wide world over had best begin consuming American-made purification, lest all eight billion of us wake up one of these days with a combination stroke cardio-thrombosis from sublimating our needs for something au courant with an overabundance of Diana Krall CD's. And that brings us at last to Looking For America, Carla Bley's most recent recording.

Q. Did you find that perfect note?

Carla: Of course not. [Laughs] But I am working on another album. It's not so much a paragraph in my life as you might think. It's all like one big story. And the search continues.

Q. Do you have a title for the new album?

Carla: It's called The Lost Chords. Ah, there's a theme! I'm still looking for them.

Q. Will this be will a big band?

Carla: No. Small piece. Quartet.

Q. Sometimes you swear off doing the big band music and then you inevitably find yourself coming back to it.

Carla: That's true. That's the way it has been in the past.

Q. Does it take a lot out of you?

Carla: It's not that. I'm writing for a quartet now. And I'm finding myself with too many notes for too few people. I'd prefer to just have a nice little band. Travel around in a car. Make a lot of money, you know, whatever [Laughs].

Q. But you can't escape the big band?

Carla: I can't escape it, no.

America as a concept no longer clings to the illusions of youth, but since at least World War II, it has hammered home youth's power. Chuck Berry's earliest singles proselytized youth as the ultimate commodity, in part mirroring society and, like all great art, in part creating a culture to match his dreams. "Did I miss the skyscrapers? Did I miss the long freeways?" he taunts in "Back in the USA," going on to paint an image of these now minor technological developments as stretching from one coastline to the other. All the sounds of work and reckless abandon in between those shores chime and rattle on Looking For America, as if Bley has finally opened every pore of her body to the overflow of sensations available. The album's core is a twenty-one minute bus trip across the country called "The National Anthem OG Can UC?/Flags/Whose Broad Stripes/Anthem/Keep It Spangled" that makes no apology for that which it evokes: TV dinners, baseball games, New Orleans swing, snowball fights, high school assemblies, quivering train tracks, and lots of rockets red glare, just for starters. Regardless of how much the rest of the world gets fed American Chicken Chow-Mien, Britney bedroom eyes, and SUV's bigger than Walmart, the America those of us who actually live here know by the time we're in our teens remains filled with the Chuck Berry images of finding a drive-in restaurant, spending more on our sound systems than on our rent, and struggling with unbuckling our girlfriend's safety belts. We also know by adolescence that even the youngest of us die, often for no good reason at all, that many of our teachers and parents are zombies, and that enjoying the bastard absurdities of this world is about all we have to keep us sane. Well, now, running all of that through a jump blues, marine hymn, funeral procession, amputee child birth, surprise party serenade with the loudest trumpets on earth and making it come together as effortlessly as sighing--that, that, that is what happens here, at least when Bley isn't taking "Old MacDonald's Farm" for a ride along the shores of Allen Toussaint's back patio.
Q. You've been touring in support of the album?

Carla: We did one week--five nights--at a nightclub in New York City. And another set in Minnesota. I told my agent I wanted to tour America with a big band. So I guess now I'm going back to Europe.

Q. Why does it seem easier to tour in Europe?

Carla: That's my question. Why? I don't know.

Q. What was the reaction in the States?

Carla: We did not sell the clubs out. Not a single night. I was quite shocked. Although, we all had a great time, you know, playing every night.

Q. What's The Lost Chords going to be about?

Carla: Have you seen our website? []

Q. Many times, sure.

Carla: We just put up all the new stuff. We have a labyrinth with all the cities on the tour.

Good, bad, or neutral, these sound images insulate--that is, they link the physical continental geography to the free-wheeling life adventures that are specifically American. Rather than clawing at the rest of the globe to sell that experience, Looking's wide-angle snapshot panorama invites the world to sample the good, bad, and neutral.

Of course, the very idea of looking for America while being not only in but of America declares by its nature that the seeker is lost, disaffected, or both. Much has been made of the fact that when Chuck Berry emphasized the word "hard" in "looking hard for a drive-in," he meant that a place open to serving a black man was a welcome sight. The self-made American journey is jammed with shards and relics shivering from the chill of such lost identity. The Stanley Brothers' "Rank Strangers," Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Kinky Friedman's "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You," Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," and Grandmaster Flash's "The Message"--these songs and thousands more, by turn indignant and paralyzed, all hunger for their own drive-in where burgers sizzle round the clock and where music brings the lost souls together for the greatest dance of all time.

Just as Berry's songs center on the taste, rather than the process, of the rapture of confusion, so Bley and Band celebrate the search without forcing us to digest deeper meaning. In these times when everything from partying to patriotism slumps beneath an ever-plunging seriousness, this aural Mylanta is just what we need.

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