Cardenas, Allison & Nash capture the healing power of the blues

Carla Bley first came to prominence with the compositions in song form she wrote in the early 1960s. Recorded by others – Bley had not yet launched her career as a pianist – their wry humor and their clear lines were then a class apart. Major projects followed, including Charlie Haden’s album The Liberation Music Orchestra and the collaborative Escalator on the hill. From the mid-1970s, she was an established pianist-conductor exploring texture and style with a uniquely surreal touch.

Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley captures that pithy aesthetic and melodic flair through intimate chamber jazz. The trio of guitarist Steve Cardenas, bassist Ben Allison and Ted Nash doubling on saxophones and clarinet have been performing on and off since 2011, and their close tuning is evident.

The first four tracks feature compositions from Bley’s early career. They find her sketching out strong moods with minimalist lines and her clearly defined basic approach. They also reveal the influences behind this likeable trio’s approach – the sharp avant-garde angles of “Ictus” were recorded in 1961 by reed man Jimmy Giuffre, whose work is a model for the chamber jazz of the trio. By contrast, the winding theme to “Donkey,” recorded by Don Ellis in 1962, lays bare Bley’s deep jazz roots as it unfolds over 12 bars of blues.

The other two songs were first recorded three years later by her ex-husband, pianist Paul Bley, confirming the emotional reach of her early work. The poignant set opener, “Ida Lupino,” written to celebrate a powerful woman in 1950s Hollywood, offers an inner pulling force; “And Now the Queen” is a brief fanfare.

The album then brings the character of Bley’s later work to life with well-drawn themes and delicate ensemble work. The soft “Lawns” is beautifully realized by a touch of vibrato in the tenor sax; “Ad Infinitum” never resolves; and the trio fully captures the playful bite of the oft-covered “King Korn.”

The album ends with the title track, the trio relaxed, engaged and imbued with the healing power of the blues.

★★★★☆

“Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley” is published by Sunnyside

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