The Limits of Reality

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Carla Bley / Mike Mantler / Steve Lacy / Kent Carter / Aldo Romano
Jazz Realities
Fontana : 1966

CB, piano; MM, trumpet; SL, soprano sax; KC, bass; AR, drums.

So this is–  what, exactly? Too knotty for post-bop. Too compositional for free improv. Not harmolodic enough to be mistaken for Ornette. Not skronky enough to have been released on ESP. Not aggressively avant, but slyly off-kilter. It’s achingly lovely one moment, and heedlessly unsettled the next. In short, too weird for most traditionalists and too seemly for most noiseniks.

This shape-shifting Whatsit from 1966 isn’t the sort of radical recording that remakes sound worlds. Instead, it’s the unusual album that deftly positions itself between various familiar modes and tones.  Jazz Realities offers plenty of handles, but it doesn’t let you hang on to any of them for long. This is music aimed at the listener’s blind spot. Recorded in the Netherlands and featuring a stellar line-up of American and European musicians, it still sounds as intriguing out-of-step as it ever did.

The album is billed as a collective effort, but we’re inclined to give Carla Bley most of the credit. She wrote the majority of the tunes – including the two here – and her gift for unexpected arrangements shines throughout. “Doctor” gallops out of the gate, featuring strong horn riffs that are immediately unraveled by Romano’s free drumming. Note how Bley’s crabwise piano solo seems to underscore the drum performance, not vice-versa. The solos from Lacy and Mantler blow hot and ellipitcal, not necessarily in that order.

“Oni Puladi” is our fave, a delicate ballad-esque tune that’s structured as a series of surging sighs. It’s sheerly beautiful, but also ragged and frayed around the edges, more concerned with feeling than exactness of form. Bley unfortunately seems to have shed this pleasing wooliness over her career, but you can hear it in spades on this song.

Don’t expect to be immediately overwhelmed by either piece. But give them a few spins and you may be surprised how deeply they’ll seep into the cracks of your day.

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