Life Goes On (ECM)

Carla Bley / Andy Sheppard / Steve Swallow

Released February 14, 2020

DownBeat Five-Star Review

Jazzwise Top 10 Releases of 2020

Jazziz Best Albums of 2020

The Guardian 10 Best Jazz Albums of 2020

2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll Top 10 Best New Album




The third volume of a sequence of albums begun with Trios in 2013 and continued with Andando El Tiempo (2016), Life Goes On – once more recorded in Lugano and produced by Manfred Eicher – features striking new music from American pianist/composer Carla Bley, whose trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Swallow has a long history. (Their first recording in trio format was Songs with Legs, recorded for the ECM-distributed WATT label in 1994.) Bley has composed for ensembles of every size but, over time, the trio has established itself as an ideal unit for expressing the essence of her work. Throughout Life Goes On, Carla’s terse, distinctive piano, shaping phrases irreducible as Monk or Satie, is beautifully framed by Swallow’s eloquent, elegant bass guitar and Sheppard’s yearning saxes. This trio has a unique collective sound, reflecting – as The Telegraph recently noted – “musical mastery of a rare order”.
 “We’ve learned to breathe together when we play,” Carla told the Charleston City Paper recently. “I hear our voices in my mind’s ear as I compose for us. I especially relish the conversational flow the trio format allows. We’re essentially a chamber music ensemble, and this allows me to write music for us free of bombast and exaggeration. Music stripped down to its basic elements. This format also demands that, as players, we improvise in the character of each particular song, which is both a challenge and, on a good night, a great satisfaction. “
The new compositions featured here, all penned by Bley, take the form of three suites, each of which was widely previewed and fine-tuned by the group at concert and festival appearances in the US and Europe prior to the May 2019 recording session at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI in Lugano. “This is music we’ve been preparing for the last three years,” Carla Bley told DownBeat, when the trio played the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, as part of ECM’s 50th anniversary celebrations. “The reason we’re touring is to be able to practice it every night and get it right, because it’s finally going to get put down. It’ll always be the same once it’s recorded.” If this seems unlikely, given the improvisational capacity of the participants, the recording does have a definitive air about it.
The stoical sound of the 12-bar blues – resolute and ready for anything – opens Life Goes On. The album’s title piece was written as Carla Bley was recuperating from illness, alluded to in characteristically droll liner notes – in verse this time. “The whole suite has a more optimistic feel than the melancholic, wistful Andando El Tiempo,” suggested Jazz Views writer Jack Kenny, reviewing the group in London. “The middle parts, ‘On’ and ‚ And On‘, are written with wit and humour. The last part, ‘And Then One Day’, moves from tango into a more settled rhythm. This is a great addition to the Bley library, bright and optimistic.” Sheppard offers robust tenor in the first three movements, switching to lightly floating soprano for the fourth and sharing lead instrumental duties with Swallow, who has shaped a personal, highly lyrical approach to the electric bass.
 “Beautiful Telephones”, perhaps the first jazz composition inspired by a quote from the White House’s current occupant, has been described by JazzTimes as “Bley at her sardonic best…Introduced as a duo with Swallow, the solemn and cinematic theme wended through several elegiac moods punctured by a series of quotes, including ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‚’Yankee Doodle.’” Carla has summed it up as “a piece where things get excited and then impatient and then excited again and then change. Nothing stays the same because, with the attention span of the President, we have to quickly change the music, too.”
The third suite, “Copycat”, explores the notion of call-and-response in fresh ways as the improvisers continue each other’s thoughts, putting a slightly surreal spin on the imitation games that are part of jazz interaction, as phrases are passed around among the players for commentary and elaboration.
Further recordings with Carla Bley are in preparation.

Track Listing:

1. Life Goes On (Carla Bley) 06:00

2. On (Carla Bley) 04:46

3. And On (Carla Bley) 04:10

4. And Then One Day (Carla Bley) 09:02

5. I (Carla Bley) 04:35

6. II (Carla Bley) 06:13

7. III (Carla Bley) 06:16

8. After You (Carla Bley) 05:29

9. Follow the Leader (Carla Bley) 00:17

10. Copycat (Carla Bley) 09:51


Personnel: Carla Bley, piano

Andy Sheppard: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone

Steve Swallow: electric bass

Recorded May, 2019, at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Switzerland

Engineer: Stefano Amerio

Photos: Caterina di Perri

Design: Sascha Kleis

Produced by Manfred Eicher


Carla Bley’s longtime trio with British saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow played one of the more memorable sets at last year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and this studio recording is a brilliant extension of their camaraderie. The album offers three suites that highlight Bley’s deft sense of dramatic development, her gifts as a soloist (so often overshadowed by her composing) and the trio’s deadpan minimalism and subtly organic interplay. The pianist, 81, recently had surgery for a brain tumor, so the title (and title track) have deep personal resonance. The four parts of the opening suite—“Life Goes On,” “On,” “And On,” “And Then One Day”—play out like a little story about mortality, beginning with a slow and sexy blues, as if to say, “Here is bedrock, everyday life as it should be,” followed by a tender, Monk-ish ballad that has “I adore you” written all over it. After a playful, quick dance in 3—“Life is good; life’s a dance”—comes the crash: a tense piano pulse, Swallow’s high, hooting bass guitar chewing on dissonance, Sheppard switching from keening soprano to virile tenor, then everyone slowing down to a stop, with a final tolling bell. It’s as if the band’s saying, “Yes, life goes on, but in the end, it also doesn’t.” Bley’s ability to embrace such dichotomies lies at the heart of her genius. The noirish “Beautiful Telephones”—which takes its title from Donald Trump’s commentary on White House decor after moving in—manages to be both ominous and emotionally expressive. Bley breaks out with splashy figures, as Swallow buoys her, breaking for a moment into a walk, then answers her call. Sheppard solos passionately on tenor. The trio has no drummer, so there’s a lot of air between notes, and sometimes the players pair up. On the clever third piece, “Copy Cat,” Bley, Swallow and Sheppard repeat or complete one another’s thoughts, giving off electricity as they glance off each other’s compact phrases. Sheppard’s soprano spits and thrusts in a duet with Swallow, who periodically leaves the reedist to fly off the cliff into stop-time. The pianist plunks and plinks with delight, answering Sheppard. During Bley’s long and rich career, there have been times when her work has merely seemed smart, but not emotionally resonant. Here, it’s both, and her trio is all in for life—as long as it lasts.

Paul de Barros (DownBeat)