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“I think all of us deserve booing at some point in our life”

Interview: Carla Bley. The polymathic jazz figure plays bass with Steve Swallow’s Quintet on Nov 6 as part of JazzFest Berlin, opening Nov 2.

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Photo by D.D. Rider

Although this year’s Berlin JazzFest promises the usual stretch of coverage, from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Nov 5 @ Quasimodo) to a documentary on Polanski soundtracker Krzysztof Komeda (Nov 2 @ Haus der Berliner Festspiele) to sample-fav Volker Kriegel (Nov  5 @ Haus der Berliner Festspiele) leading a big band, the high point might be the Sun, Nov 6 performance by bassist Steve Swallow’s Quintet with a relatively rare appearance by his paramour, Carla Bley, on organ.

A polymathic figure in jazz (and in possession of its most iconic haircut), composer/arranger/keyboardist/big band leader Bley has worked her way through 1960s free jazz (helping to found the JCOA and arrange for bassist Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra), 1970s Canterbury rock (collaborating with Robert Wyatt and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason) and has composed some of jazz’s funniest lyrics (which is to say, they’re actually funny).

Her work is not easy to pin down and, as you can see from this interview, thankfully, neither is she.

You’ve played JazzFest in a variety of configurations.

I have – but the only one I remember is where we sang a song called “Boo to You Too” and had the participation of the photographers and press corps that were in front of the stage to boo at a certain point. And it was just fantastic: it really worked.

The Berlin audience’s general tendency is to boo at anything anyway. JazzFest audiences famously booed Fela Kuti.

Well, they used to boo at [Miles Davis drummer and fusion founding father] Tony Williams and Duke Ellington. I mean, not continuously, but at certain times I had heard that that was true. So that’s why I wrote the song – I just wanted to defend all the musicians who play there by turning it ‘round on the audience.

But I’m assuming they haven’t booed you. The German government gave you a German Jazz Trophy a couple of years ago.

They don’t boo me, but they used to. I played a concert in – somewhere in Germany – where they were throwing things at the stage and I got so angry that I asked the promoter to come up on stage and emptied a bottle of Coca-Cola on his head. Thank God it was a long time ago.

If they’re booing Duke Ellington, nobody is getting a break.

I think all of us deserve booing at some point in our life.

Do you take the audience reactions into account when you’re composing and arranging?

I think I do in the sense of ‘Is this interesting to other people or is it just interesting to me?’ I’m still writing for myself, but I’m writing for myself as a listener instead of as a player or a writer.

Can you place yourself outside of yourself in that way?

A friend of mine, [the poet and Escalator over the Hill librettist] Paul Haines used to say that there’s no player like a listener. The listeners sometimes knew more about a person’s music than the person playing it.

Musicians can listen for virtuosity when they should be listening for expression.

It’s a question for other people but not for me, since I have no virtuosity whatsoever.

But you’ve been touring more as a player recently.

Yes I have: I’m trying to learn to be a player. For instance, when I play in this band – in Steve Swallow’s Quintet – I’m Steve Swallow’s bass player. When he’s taking a solo, I’m his bass player. So when I first started playing, I just started playing, you know, the root: nothing stylistic whatsoever.

But the more I listen to Steve play for the other soloists in the band, the more I’ve been stealing little things. Like, he’ll do an octave leap instead of staying on the same note. He’ll play the same note an octave above and I’ve figured out where exactly he plays that, so now I imitate him and that is so much fun.

I could have sworn you’d played the organ before.

Never the bass on the organ, always just one-handed organ. I’d never really comped for myself. I first decided to use an organ –  as well as a piano  – in the band because I heard Ray Charles do it with his band. And he said that the reason he did it so that the horns would play in tune. He had the organ player playing exactly what the horns were playing. So that’s an example of the orchestral use of the organ.

But the other reason is that I really couldn’t play an accompanying left hand as a piano player. I didn’t learn that until after my organ-playing days. When I played the organ in the band, it was just either playing the same note as the horn, or a solo with just the right hand – just a melodic solo without any accompaniment. Then I started, you know, playing with Steve and he said, ‘No, you’re supposed to use your left hand also when you play a solo.’ And this was unknown to me. That was ummm… almost 30 years ago. I’m a slow learner.

As a player, how is approaching an instrument different to the way a bandleader does it?

It’s really thrilling because I don’t have to make announcements!

Though I suspect you like to talk on-stage.

I’m terrified. But, you know, as soon as I do I talk a lot – but only in a nervous way. I don’t really feel like I’m talking to the audience; I feel like I’m just getting through it – getting through the experience in a nervous energy.

You don’t think you’re communicating at all?

No. I think the music should do it. And in a classical concert – usually the musician doesn’t have to say a single word.

Although the conductor can be very flamboyant in his silent way.

Ok, yeah. That’s true, and sometimes the conductor speaks as well. But usually the artist doesn’t have to say anything.

I don’t know. I like to talk the first night of the tour ‘cause then I say, ‘Oh, I have some new music to play for you and, as a matter of fact, this is a world premiere. We’re about to play something – I don’t even know if it’s any good – but check it out.’ And the second night, I can’t say that. So I think ‘Hello, we’re about to play something for the second time. We already know that it’s good, so it’s not up to you to decide”. And by the third night I can’t even say that!

I think when you speak from the stage you have to be playing a role  – you have to be saying something you’ve figured out. You can’t be natural, really. Unless you’re being too natural: ‘Awww man, we just got in from Tokyo. I don’t feel like playing – I just wanna go home and watch TV.’ You can’t say that. I think a lot of artifice is involved with speaking whereas I don’t think there’s this artifice involved with playing.

You have developed a stage persona. Is the ‘Carla Bley’ look a way to protect yourself a bit?

That’s true, and as a matter of fact for the last, um, maybe 10 years I’ve been just wearing a black suit on stage, so I’m even hidden further – I just have that one uniform. And I stopped wearing makeup maybe 10 years ago and, well, I guess I still have that hair that looks like me.

I’d assumed that was originally a statement about being a woman in the jazz world?

Well that’s a long question and it would take a really long answer. Well, I decided – it’s really nothing to do with the stage.  I decided I wanted my hair to be bigger than it was and so I tried – this was back in the 1960s, I guess – braiding dreadlocks into my hair, long blond dreadlocks. I thought, ‘Well that would be really cool.’ Ten years later, and everybody’s doing it.

And so then, it didn’t work, and I kept thinking, ‘What would work? What would make my hair bigger and straighter?’ So I invented this thing, but I’m not gonna tell you what it is because what if everybody did that? I’d have to come up with something else. 

You’d become a hairstyle guru the way that Laurie Anderson is the godmother of spiky hair.

That’s right. But I’m not gonna tell.

And as a writer do you find yourself rejecting a lot of experiments?

Yeah I have, but not many. I have a morgue where all the dead music lives or the music that was never alive, that was never played. But that doesn’t happen too often. I wrote a song for my trio just because I wanted my saxophone player, Andy Sheppard to say the title of the tune, because I thought it was funny – the title of the tune was ‘Fast Food’. But because he’s English, it would come out ‘Faaaaarst Fud’ and that was so stupid. We’ve put that tune away and we’ve never played it.

Are you writing for anything right now?

Yeah, I’m writing for a big band and boys’ choir.

A boys’ choir? I’m assuming that’s the first time you’ve done that.

Yeah, I don’t even have the boys’ choir yet but it’s still in my mind and I’m working on it. Little boys’ choir! But that’s not so important; it’ll probably never be performed live.

You did a Christmas album a couple a years ago. Are you entering into your spiritual period?

Yeah! That’s really funny isn’t it? The other thing I’m working on is, Charlie Haden is gonna do the next [LMO] album. We’ve done three tunes already. The next tune I’m working on is a Marvin Gaye song from his album What’s Going On. It’s called “Mercy, Mercy Me” and that’s such a beautiful song and, of course, it has nothing to do with the way these guys play or the way the rhythm section feels or anything, but they’re gonna play it, they wanna play it – they like it. You know?

And then my next album will probably be another trio album with Andy Sheppard, because the boys’ choir big band is taking a really long time. It’s already been in the works for two years and it’s not anywhere near finished.

The LMO albums tend to have a political edge. Is this the Occupy Wall Street edition?

 It’s not political: the new Charlie Haden record is gonna be stuff about the environment. And Charlie is terribly concerned about, you know, the destruction of trees and animals and stuff like that. It could be resolved politically in the long run and it’s not being solved.

Were you listening to Marvin Gaye and artists like that back when their music was coming out in the early 1970s? A lot of jazz artists such as Pharaoh Sanders, who played with you, were really interested in R’n’B.

I think I didn’t get it until maybe the late 1980s. It probably did pass me by at the time. Both Steve Swallow and a couple of other people loved Marvin Gaye. Steve wanted to play his bass like Marvin Gaye sings. And I can hear that so much: the same register. That music belongs to us, and we’re okay, we can play it – it’s not gonna be a disaster if we play it.

JAZZFEST: The Steve Swallow Quintet feat. Carla Bley, Sun Nov 6, 20:00 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Main Stage, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstraße‎, www.berlinerfestspiele.de