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As is made all but plain by the title, Appearing Nightly is a live outing recorded by Carla Bley's big band over two nights at New Morning in Paris in the summer of 2006. Of course we've heard Bley's large group in live settings many times over the years, but in this case it's been five years since we've heard them at all — at least on a recording. Her last outing with a large ensemble was in 2003 for the pre-election year political album Looking for America.
Bley's last couple of records were made with her Lost Chords group, all of whom are present here: tenor saxophonist and flutist Andy Sheppard, bassist Steve Swallow, and Billy Drummond on the trap kit. Other players include trumpeters Lew Soloff, Florian Esch, and Earl Gardner; trombonists Gary Valente, Richard Henry, and Gigi Grata; Wolfgang Puschnig, Christophe Panzani, and Julian Arguelles make up the saxophone section, with Karen Mantler holding down the organ chair. Most of these players have been with Bley for many years.
The cover of the album also offers a solid clue as to what it sounds like: while it is no doubt a Bley record, meaning its compositions and arrangements are quite contemporary, and if it doesn't have the sound and feel of what it might have in the 1950s for an ensemble this size, it nonetheless echoes both. Furthermore, Bley's tunes go to some length to consciously draw these parallels by freely employing elements of well-known tunes from the great American songbook in both her compositions and in her solos. All of these tracks are filled with her requisite sophistication and humor, but standouts include "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid," a 25-minute long suite where Tin Pan Alley composers are paid clever homage in Bley's own solo, which quotes from "Someone to Watch Over Me" within the very framework of the composition. Other highlights include the fingerpopping swinger "Awful Coffee" with beautiful electric bass work by Swallow, and tough solos from Sheppard and Pusching. Bley's playful sense of elegance is also at work here, using many classic jazz tunes in her own piano break including a nice nod to Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." Another standout is the slightly, but pleasantly schizophrenic "Greasy Gravy" with strong work by Sheppard in a chart that references Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. All of Bley's compositions here are rooted in the rhythm section, where melodies are simple and time signatures vary slightly, but her horn charts take the stuns somewhere far beyond that humble aspiration. The big-band stomp of "Someone to Watch" (not the Gershwin tune) swings along a multi-linear framework, where knotty harmonics and counterpoint give way to brief but fiery solos by some of her bandmates — check Soloff's trumpet break a minute or so in. Ultimately, this is a very enjoyable set, one that begs repeated playing and deeper listening to get all the referent points, at the very least. But the truth is that it is so enjoyable, you'll find yourself getting lost in the music so often you'll forget to check.
Born: 11 May 1938 in Oakland, CA
Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s