Carla Bley / Paul Haines

Escalator Over the Hill

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At the time, this was probably the longest jazz-generated work in existence (its length has since been exceeded by recent pieces like Wynton Marsalis' Blood On the Fields), a massive, messy, all-encompassing, all-star ego trip that nevertheless gave Carla Bley an immense cachet of good will among the avant-garde. Bley and librettist Paul Haines called it a "chronotransduction," whatever that means. The critics called it a jazz opera -- which it isn't. Escalator is, however, very much of its time, a late-'60s attempt to let a thousand flowers bloom and indulge in every trendy influence that Bley could conceive. There is rock music, early synthesizer and ring modulator experiments, the obligatory Indian section, repeated outbreaks of Weimar Republic cabaret in 3/4 time that both mock and revere European tradition. The incomprehensible "libretto" and a good deal of the lugubrious writing for big band amount to a textbook of avant-garde pretension. And yet sometimes this unwieldy hash pulls itself together -- the woolly, somber, sectional "Hotel Overture" with avant-squeal solos from clarinetist Perry Robinson and the young Gato Barbieri in all his Wild Bull of the Pampas glory, the clear voice of Linda Ronstadt brightening up a song called "Why," Don Cherry's clarion trumpet work, the power trio of John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce and Paul Motian rumbling energetically away amidst the Indian structures of "Rawalpindi Blues." Originally released on three LPs, an almost unheard-of extravagance in 1971, today this giant relic fits comfortably on two CDs. Yet the hard-to-find LP version does have an advantage, for the work concludes with an endless windy drone via one of those locked run-out grooves, an effect that obviously cannot be transferred to a CD, which shuts off automatically.

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