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Published: 2007/11/18
by Pat Buzby

The Lost Chords Find Paulo Fresu – Carla Bley

Watt 34

Becoming a jazz musician means becoming familiar with the topic of chord progressions. Writing rock songs requires knowledge on this subject, too, but words can camouflage routine music. Jazz composers, though, need to construct structures with elegance, and improvisers need to find meaning in them.

A lot happened to chordal improvisation in 1959. That year, Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue introduced, or at least popularized, modal improvisation and slowed chord progressions to a near-standstill. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps ramped progressions up to new levels of rapidity, before he joined Miles’s modal path. Soon after that, Ornette Coleman abandoned chords altogether. Carla Bley has been involved in Ornette-influenced projects, but much of her recent work has been along the lines of Kind Of Blue, and on this CD the musical moods also recall that classic record.

The resemblance comes partly from the band. Paolo Fresu’s trumpet nails the late-'50s ballad side of Miles, while Andy Sheppard has absorbed John Coltrane’s lessons in saxophone expressivity (by way of Michael Brecker). Bley’s piano is, if anything, even more austere than early Bill Evans, while bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Billy Drummond handle medium tempos with an effortless grace that rivals that of Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.

Admittedly, this CD isn’t Kind Of Blue. Fresu and Sheppard don’t equal Miles and Coltrane (no one does). And although the six-part “Banana Quintet” is cleverly titled and possesses some lovely sections (plus a “She’s So Heavy” quote), it dwells too long on its sequences of five minor-key chords, lacking Miles’s mastery of pacing.

Those blips aside, The Lost Chords could make a fine purchase for those who own little jazz other than Kind Of Blue. Bley, although a skilled instrumentalist, is a composer first, and her quintet is equal to the task of finding meaning in her chord sequences. This CD demonstrates that a century of exploration hasn’t exhausted the potential of chordal improvisation.

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