Composer and pianist Carla Bley has been very consistent, if not exactly prolific, for most of her 40 years in jazz. When she and bassist/life partner Steve Swallow hired British saxophonist Andy Sheppard -- then one of his country's young lions as both a composer and as a reedman -- in 1989, they hired him on and he's been with the group ever since. The recorded evidence was heard on Sheppard's first appearance with Bley on the utterly beguiling Fleur Carnivore, and later on the fine trio recording Songs with Legs in 1995. Drummer Billy Drummond joined the unit as a permanent member in the early part of this century, and on 2004's Lost Chords debut, locked in with a unit that seemed to be evenly weighted all around. This quartet has been responsible for some astonishing gigs, and conceivably, Bley could record this group over and over. But she's a restless composer, whether writing for big band or smaller units. The silly but delightful story in the liner notes tells us that she'd been hearing the sound of a trumpet when writing, and found the perfect foil in the sounds coming from Sheppard's headphones. Closer to the truth is it was Sheppard who encouraged Bley to enlist Paolo Fresu for this recording. Simply put, after the great Enrico Rava there is no finer Italian trumpeter than Fresu, an intensely lyrical, warm-toned player who is capable of speedy bebop runs, to be sure (check his early sides for proof), but who favors a more lyrical approach to the music as many Italian jazzers do.
Evidenced by Bley's compositions here, hiring Fresu for this outing was an inspired idea. The combination of Sheppard's big, raw-edged tenor with Fresu's rich and textured approach to both in-line exchange playing and as a soloist is perfect. The disc opens with the six-part "Banana Quintet." (It's obvious that Bley hasn't lost any of her dry ironic wit since her last outing.) It begins slowly on "One Banana," with Fresu's trumpet playing a six-note line, and is joined by the band repeating it with either extra or fewer notes from the same sequence to keep Bley's bars clean. They trade like this for three repetitions before the ballad unfolds with Fresu's solo, as lyrical and pastoral as a warm summer rain in the country. His long solo is followed by a gorgeous one by Swallow before the tune begins to wind down with Swallow coloring the lead line on his high strings in the high register. It's one of the most beautiful songs she has ever composed. The blues enters on "Two Banana," and the listener is treated to the utterly striking and beautiful contrast to this two-horn line. Sheppard solos first on tenor, as the band shuffles along and Bley colors his phrasing with elegant chords that nonetheless contain the hint of something darker in their force. Fresu picks up on the tail end of that solo with his own after twinning on long sustained notes, and he slides into the opposite chair, articulating something more graceful, but no less emotive.
"Third Banana" reveals some of Bley's humor. Its odd phrasing, with Drummond punching in Sheppard's solo with accents, is belied by the sparseness of Bley's own comping, which certainly swings but is also highly idiosyncratic. "Four" is introduced by a bass and piano ostinato line that deeply resembles the Beatles' "I Want You/She's So Heavy." The coolest thing about the cut is the way Drummond comes on more forcefully as it unwinds. He's driving it whether it's from the bell of his cymbal, his snare, his oddly punctuated bass drum accents, or the entire kit, and that force begins to push the other players to meet him. Sheppard finally does, blowing right out of the blue with a deep dark blues line. It becomes apparent about two thirds of the way through that Bley is using that Beatles line verbatim, but it leads somewhere else before the tune empties itself out. There's a subtle yet groovy Latin vibe on "Five Banana" that has some very compelling and tighter, hotter solo work from Fresu. The rhythmic interplay between Swallow and Drummond is utterly entrancing and remarkable. The gorgeous chord voicing that underscore the solo lines by both Fresu and Sheppard are among some of Bley's tastiest yet. It's a kind of pronounced rhythmic counterpoint that uses the dynamic shapes and shades to offer something a little darker to the mix.
There are three cuts outside "The Banana Quintet." There's the languid, sloping swing of "The Liver of Life," with some wonderful harmonic head playing by Sheppard and Fresu. "Death of Superman/Dream Sequence, No. 1: Flying" begins with another deeply song-like bass solo by Swallow and opens onto a limpid palette with breezy tones, at a ballad tempo. Sheppard's solo is spare but exquisite. Finally, "Ad Infinitium" offers Bley's post-bop composition at its best with a fine swinger that walks a line between mid- and quick tempo, gaining in both musculature and a chameleon-like set of changes that are negotiated wonderfully -- especially by their notation in Drummond's skittering breakbeats. Once more, Fresu rises to a faster, tighter flight solo and is answered by Sheppard, the distance between those two sounds breached by the shifting of Bley's big chords, giving them both a wonderful chromatic line to walk.
With all of her strengths on display here, from humor and a strict reliance on substance over her own considerable instrumental virtuosity, to her canny compositional skill at writing balanced and nuanced, elegant works that add to the actual literature of the music, this baby trumps the Lost Chords quartet date (it's sort of amazing that's even possible) in all the right places, making it arguably the finest small group record Bley's ever made.