CARLA BLEY: The Further Adventures of the Lone Arranger

Wes Phillips (Stereophile magazine) .....

Even though she calls her new band, 4x4, a "small" group, it's a big band—almost too big for the stage of the Knitting Factory on the night of October 11, 2000, as it makes its first American appearance. Bley's piano is so far to stage left, she has to lean against the wall and stoop under a hanging monitor speaker to address the audience. Four music stands dominate the rest of the apron—her front line of tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, trumpet, and trombone stand shoulder to shoulder, blocking the audience's view of Larry Goldings and his Hammond B3, drummer Billy Drummond, and bassist Steve Swallow, who stands 15' back and on a riser. If she'd showed up with her 17-piece band, they'd have had to have hung the horn sections from the rafters, like the sound system.

That comic image would probably amuse Bley. Over the last three decades, she has constructed a body of work that has distinguished itself as much for its sly wit as for her austerely beautiful melodies. Yet, her music is no joke—she has amassed an impressive list of artistic triumphs as she has hewn to an almost contrarian career path. In an age that reveres the soloist, she has succeeded as a songwriter and arranger; in a world of trios and quartets, she has flourished by thinking big—compared to her big band, which ranges from 12 to 17 pieces, an octet is a small ensemble, the space constraints of the Knitting Factory stage not withstanding.

"I can't remember who first suggested it, but it just made sense to tour with a stripped-down ensemble," Bley said. "I'm not comfortable performing on stage, so I like to be surrounded by people. My favorite favorite format is Escalator over the Hill [the revolutionary, genre-bending, two-hour "chronotransduction" that catapulted Bley to fame in 1971], where I don't play a note, I just stand up there and conduct. My second favorite is big band, where I just have to play a little accompaniment and wave my arms. After that, 4x4 is my next favorite, because I have a lot of great soloists, and again, all I have to do is a little accompanying and hardly wave my arms at all."

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