Dispatch from Bley Island: Preparing to play a master's music

Lucas James '20, Hop Ensembles Fellow

On October 19, the Coast Jazz Orchestra shares a double bill with the Carla Bley Trio. The Coast will play some of Bley's epic yet rarely performed big band music from the past 50 years. A member of the trombone section, Lucas reports on getting ready to play Bley's music with the composer in the room.

This term, the Coast Jazz Orchestra is double-billing with pioneering big band legend Carla Bley alongside her long-time collaborators Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow. The concert (on Saturday, October 19, at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth) will showcase a small slice of Bley's remarkable repertoire, in equal measure deeply eccentric and wonderfully familiar.

This term, as a band we've been working through (or in jazz parlance, "woodshedding") Bley's compositions at breakneck speed. That's because the concert is already just around the corner, only a week away as this piece is written. It's a tight schedule to do justice to this music, as filled as it is with thorny puzzles and surprises. There are no shortcuts.

The music may be difficult, but the atmosphere in rehearsal is never grim. Bley's pieces are often nearly bursting with a sort of madcap hilarity. They can be playful, like her twisted funk remix of Old MacDonald had a Farm,  which will have you cracking up even as your toe can't resist tapping. Sometimes, the joke is closer to a prank, like a triumphant trumpet call that is tuned a discordant half-step lower than what everyone else in the band is playing. Listen for it at the concert. It's no mistake—just a mixture of the stately and the silly, which is pure Bley.

Though Bley's writing can be downright funny, the Coast takes its performance dead seriously. In her repertoire are passages of monumental beauty and religious solemnity alongside the wild and weird. You sometimes feel like a Yosemite highliner, suspended by a narrow cable over vast canyons and cathedrals of stone; at other times, you're dancing on a live wire.

How have we adapted ourselves to these curious contradictions? How have we taken on Carla Bley's unique musical dialect after only a month? Just as we would study any new language: deep, deep immersion. We find ourselves airdropped onto Bley Island with nothing but our instruments and our wits about us. All we can do is learn the language and enjoy the ride. 

We hope you join us on the 19th—because we like it here.

Carla Bley's trio will be briefly returning from their European tour to join us at the Hopkins Center on October 19th. Her website is here

Meet Lucas James '20 and the other 2019/20 Hop Fellows