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Listening Post: Carla Bley, Sissle and Blake, Michael Nyman’s piano music

Jazz

Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow, “Andando El Tiempo” (ECM). Carla Bley was 80 on Wednesday. A good argument could be made that, at 80, she is the greatest living jazz composer; certainly she is among the reigning two or three that we still have with us. As a melodist, her work could be almost as haunting in her prime as the work of John Lewis, despite the attitude and surreal cheekiness of the titles affixed to her music and the explanations of it too. Not this time. This is virtually a family record for Bley in her ninth decade. Her mates are her life partner, bassist Steve Swallow, and her longtime saxophonist and friend Andy Sheppard. The title of the disc translates to “the passing of time” and her explanation of the extended title piece is that it was composed for a friend going through treatment for substance abuse. It is gorgeous. Bley’s piano playing – so often subsumed under the chordal, non-virtuoso rubric of “composer’s piano” – has been preserved by producer Manfred Eicher as if it were something precious that should be presented under glass. Nor, in that case, is Eicher wrong. This is a very personal portrait of a composer at 80, inspired by contemplation of philosophical subject matter. The whole disc, while not all in the same mood, is a way for a woman at a life milestone making sure that lovers of jazz music remember her entire career as nothing if not a jazz milestone. Four stars out of four. (Jeff Simon)

Vintage Pop Jazz

Sissle and Blake, “Sing ‘Shuffle Along’” (Harbinger Records). This, I’m afraid, should be for scholars, archivists and amateur theatrical and musical historians only. The current Broadway smash “Shuffle Along” is devoted to the works of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the songwriting vaudeville duo that made it to Broadway and became, as the notes say, part of the “Entertainment Elite.” These were the entertainers who emerged from minstrelsy. They brought interracial casts to Broadway along with progressive notions. When you listen now, though, to “Pickaninny Shoes,” you find it hard to separate the record’s archival value from the anachronistic hopelessness of its camp. This clearly was the music that the still-extraordinary Fats Walkler was making fun of in the next generation – and in the next after that Louis Jordan. It is fun to hear Sissle and Blake perform “I’m Just Wild About Harry” but when female singers Gertrude Saunders and Ruth Williams join them, you can’t help wanting the Marx Brothers to show up swinging from ripped background flats. Sissle was a charming performer even in these demos and Eubie Blake was always a ripping pianist. (He still was in the 70s when he made some piano rolls in Buffalo for QRS.) On “Gypsy Blues” you can hear the two share a joke between them. But “Bandanna Blues” can break your heart. It’s aimed at what was then a treasured new class of educated African-Americans asking them to be nostalgic about lives they couldn’t possibly be nostalgic about. A love for all of this, it seems to me, is what can indeed be dangerous and clueless about camp. Two and a half stars. (Jeff Simon)

Classical

Michael Nyman,”Complete Piano Music” performed by pianist Jerden Van Veen (Brillian Classics, two discs). We need to always remember that Nyman, as a critic, was the first to apply the word “minimalism” to music. He’s also the man who, as a composer, fashioned one of the finest film scores of the past four decades for Jane Campion’s film “The Piano.” That piano music occupies a whole disc of this wonderful complete set of Nyman piano music. Another Nyman movie score here is a piano transcription of the music he’d written for Dziga Vertov’s silent classic “Man With a Movie Camera.” Pianist Van Veen (whose final two names are the same as both names of the protagonist of Nabokov’s huge novel “Ada”) is most definitely comfortable avoiding all possible virtuosity on these discs, which is exactly where their greatest charm lay. The music on these two discs resists almost all beckonings to anything above an amateur level and so, brilliantly, does the performer. Who says “you never get tired of hearing Nyman’s music. Because of its very layered minimal character, because of its visual power but mostly because it’s astoundingly beautiful.” True enough. Four out of four stars. (Jeff Simon)