From their roost, Carla Bley and Steve Swallow talk chickens and the art of composing

Pianist Carla Bley, bassist Steve Swallow, saxophonist Andy Sheppard.
Pianist Carla Bley, bassist Steve Swallow, saxophonist Andy Sheppard.Caterina Di Perri/ECM Records/ECM Records

WILLOW, N.Y. — Steve Swallow greets a recent visitor to the rustic home he shares with Carla Bley in the woods outside this hamlet a few miles northwest of Woodstock. He puts on some fresh coffee, and calls up the stairs to where Bley, since moving here more than four decades ago, has done the work — composing and arranging music — that got her named a NEA Jazz Master in 2015.

Bley, 82, and Swallow, 78, were about to launch a rare trio tour with saxophonist Andy Sheppard, to conclude with four sets at the Regattabar this weekend — by which time, notes Swallow, “We should be loaded for bear.” But seated at their kitchen table that morning, the couple proves a pair of witty, down-to-earth raconteurs.


When, for example, the visitor suggests that Sheppard sounded something like Sonny Rollins on the calypso-accented song “Chicken,” from the trio’s 1994 live album “Songs With Legs,” Bley reveals a surprising fact.

“Did you know that ‘Chicken’ was written by chickens?” she asks. “I swear it’s true. There were some chickens that came to the porch in a place we were at — on the island of Tortola, the British Virgin Islands — and every morning the chickens would come and cluck tunes, and to me they were very melodic and interesting. It was done by two chickens actually, so one chicken . . .

“The other one was named John,” Swallow interjects.

“John,” she confirms, “and who else?”

“I forget what the main chicken . . .” says Swallow, fumbling for its name. “That’s terrible to forget the name of the composer.”

“Yeah,” Bley agrees, “we should give credit to that chicken.”

“She shamelessly collects the royalties,” Swallow deadpans, eyeing the visitor.

“Chicken” isn’t on the menu for this tour, but the trio will be performing a mix of unrecorded, newish compositions and what Bley calls “a couple of pieces that are ridiculously old. ‘Vashkar’ was written 50 years ago at least, and ‘Mysterioso’ is the one I’m playing that’s not by me.”


“Vashkar” was first recorded by Bley’s first husband, pianist Paul Bley, on his 1963 album “Footloose!,” along with four other pieces by Carla. “Mysterioso” is by Thelonious Monk, but Swallow says Bley’s arrangement of it for the trio is “so thoroughly reworked that it’s a Carla song anyhow.”

Swallow has championed Bley’s music since well before they became a couple in the mid-1980s. “Coming across her music was the singular event that turned me into a jazz musician,” he says. It happened when he subbed in Paul Bley’s band for a concert at Bard College in 1959. Swallow was then a 19-year-old Yale undergraduate but dropped out soon afterward to move to New York, where he presented himself at the Bleys’ doorstep and announced, “Your bass player is here.”

“I knew Carla and her music very well from that time on,” he recalls. “When I started playing with other bands I always brought her music with me, as much for my own sake as for hers. I just wanted to keep playing that repertoire.”

“He commissioned a piece,” remembers Bley. “That was my first commission. He gave me $50, and I wrote ‘Silent Spring’ for him.”

“Silent Spring” was recorded twice by Gary Burton during Swallow’s tenure in the vibraphonist’s bands, first on the classic 1967 album “A Genuine Tong Funeral” (which featured Bley compositions exclusively). More recently, Swallow performed it on “Time/Life (Songs for the Whales and Other Beings),” the final album of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, for which Bley was Haden’s principal collaborator since the late 1960s.


“Good deal, right?” says Swallow. “I got my money’s worth. I made out on that one, I would say.”

In Cambridge, Bley and Swallow will perform with Sheppard, whom Swallow recommended to Bley when she was becoming frustrated by how so many of the available tenor saxophonists sounded like John Coltrane. “Andy’s really got a homemade style,” says Swallow.

Swallow is likewise an accomplished instrumentalist, one of jazz’s first upright bassists to switch his focus to electric bass, topping fans’ and critics’ polls on the instrument until Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorious began challenging his dominance in the late 1970s.

Bley is less confident as a pianist, but more so than she used to be. “I’ve become more interested in playing in the last 10 years, maybe only five years,” she explains. “And I actually feel happy when I make it to the end of the solo and don’t fall off the cliff.”

Bley has written loads of strikingly original music through the decades. Are there compositions she’s particularly proud of?

“I really like the pieces that have good hooks, good melodies,” she answers. “You could name all the different ingredients that music has, and I like the ones that excel in all those categories. But the ones I like best of all are not the brainy things, they’re the kind of things that are the melody that you can sing. And not a lot of people can come up with one of those. When I get one of those I feel most — not proud, because I don’t feel like it has anything to do with me. It’s just luck. And the work comes later — you know, if you have to write it for a big band or something. But I like the ones that have great melodies best.”


“Name a couple,” Swallow prods.

She brings up the two of them watching a French band play music from her three-LP 1971 collaboration with poet Paul Haines, “Escalator Over the Hill.” “We were sitting backstage listening, and as I heard those old melodies — I could name anything from that.”

“Why?” he asks.

“When I heard them I just got a big, excited heart,” she says. She chuckles self-consciously. “It started to sing. I didn’t know that this was so important. I thought that maybe the things that I had written where I had used my brain were more important, and I don’t feel that way anymore. Things that I’m not responsible for are far better. I just wrote a new one, it’s called ‘Bells and Whistles.’ It’s got the greatest melody I’ve ever heard. I wrote it in August of last year, and I just finished it this week.


“It took like 20 minutes to get the melody and then eight months to get the piece that goes with it,” she elaborates. “But the melody, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got it, I’ve got it. It’s great.’ It just came to me.

“And it’s not bragging to talk about that,” declares Swallow, “because you didn’t really write it.”

“It was like chickens wrote it,” she says.

“Yeah, chickens wrote it. The melody came unto you.”

“It was a found object almost,” Bley says. “You sit there and wait, all good things will come unto you. Because you’ve got to put in your hours. I don’t have a piece now. I just finished one, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to write another one. But I know if I just sit down in my music room, at the desk or the piano, it’s about 95 percent sure that I’m going to get something.”

Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow

At Regattabar, Cambridge, March 29-30 at 7:30 and 10 p.m. (both nights). Tickets $25-$35, 617-395-7757, www.regattabarjazz.com

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.