Around 1980, Carla Bley seemed to find herself torn between several possible avenues of expression. On the one hand, you had her wild (and wildly successful) projects like Escalator Over the Hill and Tropic Appetites, where styles and musicians were combined with inspired abandon. Then there was the romantic classical aspect as shown in her composition "3/4" and, with jazz influences, her fine, ambitious Social Studies release. But, always lurking beneath the surface was her itching desire to have essentially a jazz-rock band, drawing heavily from funk and demonstrating a loose and bawdy humor. Unfortunately, this last impulse was responsible for some of her weaker efforts though, in fairness, it brought her a level of popularity hitherto unreached. Live! demonstrates the pitfalls of this approach. Though the ten-piece ensemble features some very capable musicians (including altoist Steve Slagle, French horn virtuoso Vincent Chauncey, and electric bassist extraordinaire Steve Swallow), the compositions tend to plod toward their goal and the soloing doesn't rise very far above what one might expect from a David Sanborn session (how one yearns for a youthful Gato Barbieri, a Perry Robinson, or a Don Cherry to inject some life!). Bley's themes here, once so ravishingly, bitterly gorgeous, are relatively dull or awkward in turn; when she tries her hand at gospel, as on the embarrassingly titled "The Lord is Listenin' to Ya, Hallelujah!," the results are cringe-inducing. Swallow has a nice introduction to "Still in the Room" and Earl McIntyre on tuba and trombonist Gary Valente do their best to get things rolling, but the lackluster compositions and leaden drumming (by D. Sharpe) never allow the project to take off. Listeners looking for prime Carla Bley would do better to search out her earlier, far more adventurous and creative work.
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AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick