When Carla Bley leans over a piano, wispy strands of her hair nearly obscure her face, casting a mysterious anonymity that calls to mind the wigged pop star Sia. Of course, Bley’s carved an enigmatic path through jazz and rock circles for decades longer—and the real mystery is how her acclaimed compositions take shape.

“It’s a real slow flow, like quicksand,” Bley, 82, says of her writing process from her home near Woodstock, New York, that she shares with electric bassist and longtime partner Steve Swallow. “The essence of a great piece of music is a melody that’s like being struck by lightning. … When that happens, you know you’ve got something. You probably spend the next half-year working on it without that kind of inspiration.”

Bley took three years to make Escalator over the Hill, an avant-garde 1971 opus with poet Paul Haines and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra that was hailed as a jazz opera. It began with a poem that Haines sent to Bley. “It went magically with the piece of music I was writing,” she says. “I wrote back to him and said, ‘Send me more of those words and let’s write an opera…’ It took one second to think of the idea and then you’re stuck for years.”

“The essence of a great piece of music is a melody that’s like being struck by lightning.”

Inspired by pop landmarks like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (“I listened to everything,” Bley says), Escalator over the Hill sported a sprawling cast of jazz and rock artists, including singer Linda Ronstadt, fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and Cream bassist/singer Jack Bruce. Bruce later enlisted Bley to play keyboards in his new band with Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. Bley also wrote, co-produced and played on Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s 1981 solo album, Fictitious Sports. And she joined drummer Anton Fier’s cult supergroup the Golden Palominos, working alongside R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and folk-rocker Richard Thompson.

“Those people were not famous to me—they were just my friends,” Bley says. “I just wanted to have fun and do things that were interesting and different and unusual. I liked the idea of doing things that weren’t expected of me. It’s been a nice life.”

Raised in Oakland, California, with a religious father who was a keyboardist, Bley played piano “as I learned to walk,” she says. “My first concert was at church when I was 3 years old. I played ‘Three Blind Mice’ on the black keys with my fists.”

She moved to New York at 17, lying about her age to get a cabaret card and work as a cigarette girl at Birdland, where she observed Count Basie, among other jazz greats, Bley says. “That was my college.
I got to hear everybody and I didn’t have to pay. I didn’t sell any cigarettes. I just stood there, and if anyone wanted to buy one, I’d say, ‘Wait until the solo is finished.’ ”

She met and married pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her to compose. They moved to LA, where Paul led a group with free-jazz renegades Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. She and Haden later launched his Liberation Music Orchestra, which she continued after his 2014 death, with Swallow assuming Haden’s bass chair.

While she’s perhaps best known for her large-ensemble pieces, Bley’s primary outlet the past 20 years has been her trio with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, mounting a rare U.S. tour that hits the Regattabar on March 29-30.

“You can’t have a big band anymore,” Bley says, noting that festivals aren’t paying to bring in large groups and that it’s difficult to float such recording projects. “I haven’t had anything recorded for three years and I’ve written a lot of music in that time for various bands,” says Bley, who’s adapted “reduced scores” for the trio, which is also road-testing new material for a May recording session.

“They play all their own notes as well as mine and fill out places that need filling out,” the pianist says of intuitive foils Sheppard and Swallow. “Bolts of lightning come easier to players than people who write. … But even I have them. All of a sudden, I’ll play something that really knocks me out, and I’ll be so happy.” 

Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow play the Regattabar on March 29-30.

For more music coverage, check out Paul’s Weekend Music Ideas.

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