Transparent smartassery?

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It’s only natural that pianist-composer Carla Bley should arrive at the point of devising Fancy Chamber Music, since her avant-garde bite of yore has long since evolved into a droll elegance. What’s remained consistent throughout her career is her ability to take tongue-in-cheek pastiche – she was "postmodern" long before the term achieved wide currency – and alchemize it into something resembling serious music.

Fancy Chamber Music is packaged as a joke at the expense of moneyed sophistication, but inside there’re long stretches where you’re pretty sure she ain’t kidding. And the two short pieces, "Romantic Notions" Nos. 4 and 6, are positively solemn – coolly lyrical, still and tender.

Some of this sounds familiar, despite the chamber group setting. "Wolfgang Tango" is another in an ongoing series of tributes to that stately Latin dance form, while the long-standing influences of Kurt Weill and Nino Rota peek through the elaborate permutations of the disc’s most ambitious piece, "Tigers In Training" – that would be the early, satirical Weill, of course, and the Fellini-esque Rota of the sad circus music. And there’s the nagging feeling throughout that much of this is a tad lightweight – that when you hunker down with a focused ear, her music seems to have an abiding transparency. The same cleverness – or smartassery – which saves her from unintentional schmaltz also blocks the way to more complex feelings; all intentions dissolve into a kind of pleasant airiness. Still, it has her distinct stamp, and fans of rigorously applied irony should check it out. –

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