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Carla Bley, prolific and expansive jazz pianist, dies at 87

Carla Bley performs in Nice, France, in 2009.
Valery Hache
AFP via Getty Images
Carla Bley performs in Nice, France, in 2009.

Carla Bley, the pianist behind some of the most beloved compositions in the jazz canon, who recorded over two dozen albums between 1966 and 2019, died Tuesday. Her death was confirmed by her husband and longtime collaborator, bassist Steve Swallow; the cause given was complications from brain cancer. She was 87.

Bley was a force in jazz even before she made her first albums, as her compositions were recorded by notable modernists of the 1960s. Within several years, she became both a recording artist in her own right and an activist for independent musicians, co-founding the group The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (JCO) in 1965 and the nonprofit distributor New Music Distribution Service in 1972, both with her second husband, trumpeter Mike Mantler.

Carla Bley was born Lovella May Borg on May 11, 1936, in Oakland, Calif. Her father, Emil Borg, was a piano teacher and church organist, and gave Bley her first lessons. She left high school before her junior year and soon was in New York, where she found work — and valuable exposure — as a cigarette seller at the Birdland Jazz Club.

It was during her time in New York that she met her first husband, fellow pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her to begin composing. Her first recorded piece, "Bent Eagle," came courtesy of George Russell in 1960 for his Riverside album Stratusphunk. Over the next decade-plus, artists including Jimmy Giuffre, Don Ellis, Art Farmer, Steve Kuhn, Gary Burton and Tony Williams would all record her work. Her pieces could be ethereally beautiful or subversively brash, but always found a grandeur without tilting into pretension, a quality reflected in her economical piano playing.

Her own recording career began in 1966 with an album for Fontana, featuring Mantler and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Next came the mammoth three-LP set Escalator Over the Hill, co-credited to Bley and poet Paul Haines, and released by the JCO house label. Recorded between 1968 and 1971, the album featured more than 40 contributors, among them bassists Charlie Haden and Jack Bruce, saxophonist Gato Barbieri, guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Don Cherry, keyboardist Don Preston and vocalist Sheila Jordan.

Bley and Mantler founded their own record company, WATT, in 1972, and it became her main outlet from 1974's Tropic Appetites through 2009's Carla's Christmas Carols, the latter made with the Partyka Brass Quintet. Throughout the years, she kept evolving — recording three albums for ECM in a trio with Swallow and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and leading a horn-heavy ensemble in the 1980s and '90s, one of her most enduring projects.

In addition to Swallow, Bley is survived by her daughter with Mantler, the pianist and vocalist Karen Mantler. Her compositions have continued to be recorded by numerous artists well into this millennium: In 2022, guitarist Steve Cardenas, saxophonist Ted Nash and bassist Ben Allison released the tribute Healing Power: The Music Of Carla Bley on Sunnyside Records. "It seemed to me her ears were always open to what was happening at each point in time," Cardenas reflected in an email, "and her compositions reflected this, while always still recognizably Carla Bley."

Beyond her consistency, Bley was known for her humor. In a 2003 conversation with New Music USA, she mused that her chosen genre sometimes allowed her to play fast and loose with the role of the composer, leaving the heavy lifting to her ensembles: "You can leave a huge hole and they just fill it right up. ... When I started, I used to write this tiny snippet of an idea and then they would play free for a half an hour and then they'd play the snippet again at the end. And that was my piece."

At the same time, her commitment to adventurous craft was rarely in doubt. One of Bley's most significant alliances was with Charlie Haden and his Liberation Music Orchestra, intermittently active from 1969 until Haden's death in 2014. When the group's final album, Time/Life, was released by Impulse! in 2016, she told Nate Chinen at The New York Times that she'd exerted a little extra compositional force onto the notes of the title track.

"I'm trying to stretch my harmonic palette to a few notes that don't belong," Bley said. "In the piece I wrote for Charlie Haden, there's one note that's really wrong. That's the wrongest note I ever wrote. And I made it right."

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Andrey Henkin