Escalator Over the Hill

COMPOSERS: Carla Bley/Paul Haines
LABELS: JCOA/EOTH
PERFORMER: Carla Bley (cond, ky, v), various
CATALOGUE NO: 839 310-2 (distr. New Note)

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With words by Paul Haines and music by Carla Bley, co-founder of the Jazz Composers Orchestra, this is one of the classic albums of recent times. Recorded when funds would permit in 1968, 1970 and 1971, this wonderful, sprawling epic still appears as momentous as when I first heard it in the late Seventies.

The vastly improved sound quality gives a timeless feel to this music, which is unique: programmatic, episodic and sometimes awkward. It combines an astonishing variety of musicians from small groups to large ensembles. Bit players, over 40 in all, in Bley’s ‘Chronotransduction’ include Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Jack Bruce, Linda Ronstadt, Gato Barbieri and Don Cherry. The libretto is opaque, the singing is that of the musicians themselves and can mar one’s enjoyment from time to time, but it’s the orchestral sweep and soloists that matter, and which still have the capacity to move the listener.

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There are some remarkably contemporary sounds, with ambient soundwashes, as in the writing for trumpet, trombone and French horns on ‘This Is Here’. Like all great jazz, this album exists in its own space. And what’s more, I agree with my original verdict: momentous. SN