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

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