Reactionary Tango: Steve Swallow and Carla Bley

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 09.20.13 in Spotlights


Carla Bley

Around 1960, a bass-playing sophomore at Yale got a call to do a concert with a rising jazz pianist at Bard College. On the appointed day, Steve Swallow got in his car, drove the hundred miles to the Hudson Valley, met the pianist and his budding-composer wife. He could not at that moment have suspected how crossing paths with Paul and Carla Bley would change his life.

The concert went very well — so well that a few days later, Swallow dropped out of school and showed up at the Bleys’ New York apartment. He quickly found a place of his own and began his apprenticeship. The bassist began working with Paul in trios that played a few of Carla’s tunes. Clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s calm and open trio did “Jesus Maria” (among others), a classic and typical Bley tune: morose and jocular at the same time, with a fetching but obsessively repetitive melody.

Swallow eventually began turning up on some of Paul Bley’s trio records. On Closer for ESP in 1965, they play seven of Carla’s early tunes, including the quasi-improvised ballad “Closer,” the blocky march “Batterie” and earworms “And Now the Queen” and “Ida Lupino” (that last inspired by Franky Valli and the Four Seasons, she said later). Like other Bley tunes, those two move in small steps, re-tracing the same ground over and over, like third-harmony parts with delusions of grandeur: pawn’s moves between shifting chords. That’s logic a bass player can relate to.

The 1960s was the age of Albert Ayler, and compositions with pithy motives that improvisers could run with. Carla’s tunes were ready-made for spontaneous variations. Swallow also started working with hardbop trumpet balladeer Art Farmer, who recorded Carla’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” and “Ad Infinitum.”

Then they all went their own ways. Paul and Carla Bley divorced, and she slowly came into her own as a composer and arranger who played in her own bands. Steve Swallow and Paul Bley wouldn’t record again until the 1980s and ’90s, usually with Jimmy Giuffre along.

Starting in the mid ’60s, Swallow spent more than a decade with vibist Gary Burton, plugging Carla’s tunes early on. An expanded Burton band quartet recorded Carla’s suite A Genuine Tong Funeral in 1967; Burton’s quintet waxed 1975′s all-Bley Dreams So Real, with newcomer Pat Metheny joining Mick Goodrick on guitar.

Swallow was still in the band, but he’d gone through a sea-change in the late ’60s. He’d swapped his acoustic bass for an electric, played with a pick no less. He heard bass guitar as foundational bass and singing guitar both: a voice that could cover the chord roots and melodic branches.

Which is how he came to play with Carla Bley at last, joining her nine- or 10-piece little big band in the late ’70s. (Their first electric bassist was Soft Machine’s Hugh Hopper.) If some of her tunes can sound like clever third-trombone lines, she also wrote full-blown melodies for bass, and no one sounded better playing them than Swallow. Then as now, he gets an extraordinarily woody sound from the electric, even as it sings in its baritone/guitar voice. Hear her “Reactionary Tango” from 1979′s excellent Social Studies. Much of the time, the bassline is the melody, graceful and tuneful, in tango rhythm, even as it dutifully outlines the roaming harmony.

Carla played various keyboards in her own units, and she and Swallow began recording together in all sorts of settings, in her Very Big Band, and in octet and sextet and quintet and quartet and trio and duo — usually hers, sometimes his. They got on so well they became a couple, and have stuck together ever since, these drily funny white-haired stick figures who even look like they go together.

Summer of 2013, each put out an ECM album on which the other plays. Carla Bley’s Trios recorded in April reunites them with a frequent ally, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, who puts her gorgeous melodies in the key light. Now in her mid 70s, Bley is not composing so much, and on she Trios revisits five older tunes, including her lovely ballad “Utviklingssang” from Social Studies, and “Vashkar,” which Swallow first recorded with Paul’s trio a half-century earlier. These are subdued, late career readings, warm and polished.

Bley plays piano on Trios and in their duo. Swallow has said one reason he assembled the quintet heard on Into the Woodwork (a drummerless foursome until Jorge Rossy talked his way in) was to hear Carla on organ, where she gets a lean, clean and purposeful sound far from pull-out-the-stops B3 virtuosi like Shirley Scott. The dour sense of humor glimpsed in some of her composed melodies comes out; quotes from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Taps” in her “Still There” solo say it all about her drollery, and how seriously she takes herself.

She approaches organ less like a chooglin’ expressionist than an arranger asking what serves the tune best. Often, as with her own music, it’s enough to showcase the melody. Carla may not write much for herself anymore, but Swallow’s pen keeps moving. His “Back in Action” and “Unnatural Causes” are readymade for rowdy jamming, and show off the quintet (with Steve Cardenas on electric guitar and the under-heralded Chris Cheek on tenor) as one big groove machine.

Swallow had started composing in the 1960s (with “Eiderdown,” which became a minor standard) when he and Carla were first hanging out, so no surprise that his tunes sometimes resemble hers. “Exit Stage Left” could be one of Carla’s, with its infectious backbeat groove and push-pull bass rhythm, the slinky chordal movement and goofily circular blank-expression melody — and plenty of holes to let organ poke through. Why have a band if you can’t listen to your favorite person play, and play along?