Post-bop jazz has produced only a few first-rate composers of larger forms; Carla Bley ranks high among them. Bley possesses an unusually wide compositional range; she combines an acquaintance with and love for jazz in all its forms with great talent and originality. Her music is a peculiarly individual type of hyper-modern jazz. Bley is capable of writing music of great drama and profound humor, often within the confines of the same piece. As an instrumentalist, she makes a fine composer; she plays piano and/or organ with most of her bands, and while her playing is always quite musical, it's clear that her strengths lie elsewhere. Bley's asymmetrical compositional structures subvert jazz formula to wonderful effect, and her unpredictable melodies are often as catchy as they are obscure. In the tradition of jazz's very finest composers and improvisers, Bley has developed a style of her very own, and the music as a whole is the better for it.
Born Carla Borg, Bley learned the fundamentals of music as a child from her father, a church musician. Thereafter, she was mostly self-taught. She moved to New York around 1955, where she worked as a cigarette girl and occasional pianist. She married pianist Paul Bley, for whom she began to write tunes (she also wrote for George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre). In 1964, with her second husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler, Bley formed the Jazz Composer's Guild Orchestra, which a year later became known simply as the Jazz Composer's Orchestra. Two years later, Bley helped found the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association, a nonprofit organization designed to present, distribute, and produce unconventional forms of jazz.
Gary Burton's quartet recorded Bley's cycle of tunes A Genuine Tong Funeral, which brought her to the attention of the general public for the first time. In 1969, Bley composed and arranged music for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. In 1971, she completed the work that cemented her reputation, the jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill. In the '70s and '80s, Bley continued to run the JCOA and compose and record for her own Watt label. The JCOA essentially folded in the late '80s, but Bley's creative life continued mostly unabated. For much of the past two decades, she's maintained a midsized big band with fairly stable personnel to tour and record. She's also worked a great deal with the bassist Steve Swallow, in duo and in ensembles of varying size.
Bley wrote the music for the soundtrack to the 1985 film Mortelle Randone. She also contributed new compositions to the Liberation Music Orchestra's second incarnation in 1983. All through the '80s, '90s, and into the new millennium, Bley continued releasing albums through ECM, ranging from duets with bassist Steve Swallow to the Very Big Carla Bley Band. She released a third duets album with Steve Swallow, Are We There Yet?, in 2000; Looking for America in 2003; The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu in 2007; and the big-band album Appearing Nightly in 2008. In 2013, Bley returned with Trios, featuring Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard; the album marked the very first time that the pianist recorded for ECM proper instead of WATT, which had been her home for over 40 years. Her next ECM effort, 2016's Andando el Tiempo, also showcased her trio with Swallow and Sheppard.