Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BLEY, Carla

(b Carla Borg, 11 May 1936, Oakland CA) Piano, composer, bandleader. Her father was a piano teacher but she quit lessons at age four; Satie was a favourite composer, but she took up competitive roller skating before succumbing to jazz. She worked as a cigarette girl in NYC clubs, listening to Monk, Horace Silver; married Paul Bley ‘57, wrote for him and many others; played with Pharoah Sanders and Charles Moffett ‘64, entered music full-time. She was a founder member of the Jazz Composers Guild, co-leader of Jazz Composers Orchestra (Town Hall concert ‘64); to Europe with quintet 65; TV, radio and record work there. Co-founder with trumpeter/composer Mike Mantler of Jazz Composers' Orchestra Association (JCOA) (two-disc album ‘66); Mantler (b 10 August 1943, Vienna) became her second husband. Wrote A Genuine Tong Funeral for Gary Burton ‘67; her own three-LP Escalator Over The Hill ‘72 was pieced together over three or four years with JCO, soloists and vocalists, an ambitious concept album that works better on two CDs, the cast incl. Gato Barbieri, John McLaughlin. Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, lyrics by poet Paul Haines, vocalists and Jack Bruce, Linda Ronstadi and Bley. Her music was tough yet sensitive; the bits that have dated the most are the jazz-rock sections with Bruce and McLaughlin.

She arranged, composed for and played on Charlie Haden's Jazz Liberation Orchestra ‘69 and its Ballad Of The Fallen ‘83. She and Mantler started the Watt record company; more albums included Tropic Appetites ‘73-4; Dinner Music ‘76 and European Tour '77 with Mantler and Rudd; Musique Mecanique ‘78; Social Studies ‘80; Live! ‘82; Mortelle Randonnee (soundtrack) ‘83; Heavy Heart ‘84; Night-Glo ‘85; percussive Sextet ‘87 with no horns. Contributed to A&M tribute LPs produced by Hal Willner: The Way I Feel Now ‘84 (the music of Thelonious Monk) and Lost In The Stars ‘86 (Kurt Weil; Bley did title track); played on Steve Swallow's After Glow ‘86, Carla ‘87 (effectively her sextet playing his tunes) and Swallow ‘92, the latter two on ECM-ExtraWatt. Sextet mid-'8os was considered lightweight, but she came back with Fleur Carnivore ‘88 (made live in NYC with 15-piece band, title track commemorating tenth anniversary Duke Ellington's death), Big Band Theory, Duet and later Go Together with Swallow. Songs With Legs ‘94 on Watt is a trio with Andy Sheppard and Swallow, Sheppard the outstanding voice. Big Band Goes To Church ‘96 on Watt was another lightweight Carla set, with some good playing on it.

She seemed to ignore the tradional difficulties of being a woman in music, her distinctive and witty pieces recorded by Don Ellis, Art Farmer, Steve Lacy, George Russell and others over the years; her lack of formal training was an advantage, in that unaware of the rules she could do as she pleased, avoiding the string-of-solos format. She rarely soloed herself with the big band, not considering herself good enough, and her art may reside in the skilful deployment of soloists as much as in her material. She toured Britain ‘97 under the aegis of the Contemporary Music Network, her band including Swallow, Sheppard, Guy Barker; Gary Valente on trombone and Wolfgang Puschnig on alto sax.

Andante el Tiempo (ECM, 2016) was a trio album with Swallow and Sheppard, showcasing her piano for a change, released on her 80th birthday. Showing no sign of slowing down, she was going to Hamburg in June with a new piece, La Leçon Française, for the NDR big band and a 40-strong boys' choir; and she planned to lead Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Her daughter Karen Mantler studied piano at Berklee, played on Swallow's Swallow, released her own My Cat Arnold ‘89 of light-hearted songs.