JJ 12/81: Carla Bley at Camden Jazz Week

Forty years ago, Mark Gilbert saw Carla Bley's droll jazz and cabaret show at the Roundhouse. First published in Jazz Journal December 1981

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Carla Bley at the Shaw Theatre, London in 1987 as part of a later Camden Jazz Week. Photo by Derick A. Thomas

Satire and ambiguity pervade both the musical and theatrical aspects of Carla Bley’s work; her approach is about as straight as Lol Coxhill’s soprano sax, and the similarity between the two performers extends further.

As a stage personality she is reminiscent of both Coxhill and Frank Zappa – wry, dry, and ironic. Monday’s programme in­cluded a number of musical sketches that strengthened the impression, but the scrip­ting was weak, lacking the incision and im­agination of, say, Coxhill’s Murder In The Air. These were vaudeville routines, a prostitution that many in the audience were happy to encourage.

However, Bley’s charisma helped sustain fascination, and the music, if lacking solo strength, had wit and variety to recom­mend it. In any case it functions as much on an ensemble as a solo level; the concep­tion and atmosphere are as important as the notes played.

There were several notable points: a stately Reactionary Tango had a good solo from bassist Steve Swallow, while D Sharpe’s ironically understated drum solo in the final 12-bar blues number was more subtle than anything he had played in the preceding two sets. Trombonist Gary Valente was lively and impassioned as a soloist, while altoist Steve Slagle, a late addition, responded brightly to his duty as chief reed soloist. I also particularly liked the opener in the second set, where Bley’s atonal piano, masquerading as a sound check, was transformed by the ensemble into something like Webern for jazz-rock orchestra.

If it was a flawed performance, this evening’s concert was a confirmation of Carla Bley’s skill as composer and an en­dorsement of her eclectic ambitions.

Carla Bley at Camden Jazz Week at the Round House, London, October 26-31, 1981