Acoustic piano and electric bass aren’t exactly natural-born partners. Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, on the other hand, hardly approach their respective instruments with anything resembling conventionality. Bley incorporates a gamut of influences in her open-minded, idiosyncratic playing, and one-time upright ace Swallow plucks with a pick, playing guitaristically on a five-string bass rigged with an extra high C string (rather than a low B).
In addition to those factors, the two think alike, plugging into each other’s playing organically for a warm, chamberlike sound amply demonstrated on Are We There Yet? The pair’s third outing as a duo, recorded during a 1998 European tour, opens with the playful, tail-chasing "Major" before slipping into the slow-grooving gospel blues of "A Dog’s Life" and then the melancholy of "Satie For Two," named for Bley’s major influence.
Kurt Weill’s "Lost in the Stars," tagged with a bit of "When You Wish Upon a Star," is pure elegance, and Thelonious Monk’s spirit comes through (yet again) on Bley’s "King Korn." Swallow’s gorgeous tone and sophisticated phrasing are front and center on the ever-shifting, trickling "Playing With Water," and the twisting "Musique Mécanique" is informed by Eastern European folk music.
Swallow and three of his quintet partners from 1996’s Deconstructed (trumpeter Barry Ries replaces Ryan Kisor) are heard on Always Pack Your Uniform on Top, culled from a week’s worth of performances last April at London’s famous Ronnie Scott nightclub.
The post-bop compositions are consistently inventive and so are the improvisations: Dig drummer Adam Nussbaum’s tricky rhythm display over the riff of "Bend Over Backward," Chris Potter’s earthy tenor sax expedition on the frenetic "Dog With a Bone" and Mick Goodrick’s thoughtful, fluid fretwork on altered bossa "Feet First" (and everything else). Swallow, who skips solos in favor of brilliant unaccompanied introductions on two pieces, includes charts of the music in the CD booklet. Nice touch.
Phillip Booth writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.