Blustery winds, bolts of lightning and a looming squall did not deter the maestra at the helm. National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Carla Bley led her trio through uncertain conditions as calmly as any seasoned seafaring captain would, steering her vessel with paper charts and vast experience.
After a late-afternoon deluge, Spoleto Festival staff dried out the Cistern Yard and kept a close watch on the forecast and radar. The show would go on.
The Carla Bley Trio was superb. “From one exotic place to another,” said Bley’s long-time partner in music and life, venerated bassist Steve Swallow, as he greeted the audience.
The trio is fresh from performing and recording in Lugano, Switzerland. The majority of the Spoleto Festival program would consist of this new material.
“Copycat” would start the set, tuning listeners' ears for the challenging angularity of the bandleader’s music. Each member of the ensemble seemed to be interpreting the tunes according to their own reality, joining one another musically at precise points to deliver a cohesive sound.
Many musicians read their charts on iPads or smartphones. Not Bley. her paper manuscripts were a refreshing sight, though they must have been difficult to manage in the billowing breeze. A large majority of the music was written out, or at least the guidelines, but the improvised solo sections were free-flowing, reflective and every bit as intentional.
Andy Sheppard expertly demonstrated this while alternating between soprano and tenor saxophones throughout the program. What came from those pages was deliberately notated, yet stunningly free.
Bley, with her sharp, dry wit, introduced “Beautiful Telephones,” its title and music inspired by a comment made by Donald Trump in a January 2017 New York Times telephone interview. “These are the most beautiful phones I’ve ever used in my life, the world’s most secure system,” he had said. “The words just explode in the air.”
The composition was a brilliant piece of political and cultural commentary. The first movement was as dark and haunting as the black-and-blue cloud cover over Randolph Hall. The kitschy second part of the piece featured a medley of musical quotes from American patriotic marches, including “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the apropos “Hail to the Chief.” The composition ended with a tongue-in-cheek melody, like a ringtone for the ages, that implied the lyric “I did it my way,” provoking a chuckle and hearty applause from the audience.
“That was a sad note to end on,” expressed Bley, “because they said it was going to rain.” One hour and four tunes in, the penultimate tune had been played.
A member of the technical crew informed the disappointed audience that the the piano needed to be covered before the imminent rain. Bley made her plea for one more tune and was granted two minutes. An anxious crew stood at the ready.
While half the crowd rushed to the gate to leave before the expected rain, Bley charged on, on borrowed time, docking with the sprightly “Sex with Birds,” leaving the faithful satisfied, though still wanting more. The band took their bows while the crew secured the Steinway grand from the elements and swiftly battened down the hatches.
Carla Bley has enjoyed a storied career, reinventing herself time and time again, making music that has been a harbinger for the avant garde. At 82, she operates at an impressive pace, keeping her fans enthralled and finding a generation of new listeners.
Reviewer Leah M. Suarez is a Charleston-based musician.