The singular catalog of the great pianist/composer Carla Bley has been celebrated and performed for decades. She has not only performed her unique compositions in her own star-studded bands but has had them canonized by such legendary artists as Gary Burton and Paul Bley. Having had first-hand experience playing with Carla Bley in two groups, guitarist Steve Cardenas and his trio mates bassist Ben Allison and reed master Ted Nash, have created a brilliant recording of nine Bley pieces on their new album, Healing Power.
Cardenas was first introduced to the music of Carla Bley as a teenager when he heard Gary Burton’s Dreams So Real, which featured guitar icons Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny. Goodrick’s beautiful solo on Bley’s “Vox Humana” left a lasting impression on Cardenas which then led him to explore Bley’s music from the recordings of Paul Bley, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and on to her avant-pop recordings of the 1980s.
In 2004, Cardenas was invited by Charlie Haden to join the newly reformed Liberation Music Orchestra when Goodrick, who had been in the group since 1982, had stopped touring a few years earlier. Cardenas toured that summer with LMO and appeared on the group’s 2005 release, Not In Our Name. Cardenas went on to join bassist Steve Swallow’s Quintet in 2009, with Bley playing organ in the group. The result was several tours and a record (Into The Woodwork) thus further solidifying Cardenas’s musical relationship with Bley and Swallow.
The collective trio of Cardenas, Allison, and Nash came together in 2011 when Allison was invited to play a concert in upstate New York. Allison thought it would be a nice opportunity to explore the music of the legendary guitarist Jim Hall with Cardenas and Nash. After a very inspiring performance, the three of them continued to perform on occasion nationally and internationally.
The trio also found further inspiration in the Jimmy Giuffre drummer-less trio that featured Hall. In 2015, Allison was invited to record an album for Newvelle Records and thought it was good timing to document the trio’s repertoire of Hall and Giuffre, which led to the release of Quiet Revolution. In early 2018, by way of an invitation to Ted Nash, the trio performed in Cuba. Nash thought it would be fitting to perform music from West Side Story to commemorate the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. This inevitably led to the trio recording Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs later that year.
The music of Carla Bley straddles the musical sensibilities that this collective trio has focused on for over a decade. In this regard, the trio’s connection to the esthetic of Giuffre’s later trio, which featured Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, is apparent as this version Giuffre’s groundbreaking trios played many of Carla Bley’s compositions.
As the trio was deciding on which Bley compositions to record, one of the considerations was to include music from Bley’s earlier, well-known tunes with some later pieces that seemed to be less covered by many modern interpreters. In June 2021, the trio convened at Matt Balitsaris’s Maggie’s Farm studios in rural Pennsylvania to record Healing Power.
The recording begins with Bley’s beloved ballad, “Ida Lupino,” possibly the composer’s most well-known piece and one that Cardenas knew would be natural for the group, as the song seemed to arrange itself with Nash and Cardenas alternating between the melody and counter lines. Though Bley never recorded it herself, “Donkey” fits a strong element of the trio’s abstract, blues-laced vibe. While the short, tonal vignette “And Now, The Queen” allows a more open, conversational collective improvisation. A poignant reading of “Ictus” sets a more strident mood for individual improvisations, Nash’s abstract tenor solo setting up a tremolo drenched guitar solo followed by Allison’s dynamic bass.
The resonant “Lawns” is one of Bley’s most well-known songs of the 1980s and seems to play itself. “Ad Infinitum” provides a challenging 6/8 form and open harmonic changes for the trio to navigate, while “Olhos de Gato” is a gorgeous and somber slow bossa where Nash’s lush clarinet holds the melody. Originally written for tenor colossus Sonny Rollins, “King Korn” allows the trio to focus on their unique collective improvisational language. The recording concludes with the title track, a slow, funky soul tune from Bley’s 1980s catalog that has a warm and playful vibe.
Much can and should be spoken of when the topic of Carla Bley and her music comes up. The transparent, healing feeling of her music is one of its characteristics that keeps listeners and musicians returning to it. Steve Cardenas, Ben Allison, and Ted Nash channel their own invigorating feeling into Bley’s pieces on their new Healing Power.
released July 8, 2022
Steve Cardenas - guitar
Ben Allison - bass
Ted Nash - woodwinds