Though there are some jazz musicians who can get the best out of anyone they play with — most notably Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon — many do their best work when they have a solid and consistent band behind them. The latest example of this is Andando El Tiempo (CD, digital), the second and slightly better album from the trio of pianist Carla Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and bassist Steve Swallow.
Recorded in November of 2015, Andando El Tiempo features the same line-up as 2013’s Trios (my review of which you can read here). But it slightly improves upon what they did on that album by adopting a mood and sticking to it; Trios was somewhat marred by the incongruously peppy “Les Trois Lagons (D’Apres Henri Matisse).” Conversely, Andando El Tiempo has the threesome striking a dark and somber mood, one perpetuated by slow, careful, and sometimes stark playing by all three musicians.
Though the dark mood of Andando El Tiempo is also perpetuated by the trio not having a drummer. The lack of percussion gives these tunes an almost chamber music-esque approach, something it wouldn’t have if there was a fourth member of the band playing percussive sounds, save for maybe if the drummer only used brushes instead of sticks.
Nowhere on Andando El Tiempo is that more obvious than on the title track, a three song suite that, in the liner notes, Bley says, “represent stages of recovery from addiction. … It was written as I watched a friend go through the condition and come out the other end.” This mournful tone is especially noticeable during the first part, “Andando El Tiempo: Sin Fin,” when the mood is at its lowest. But then, even when things get slightly more upbeat, as they do in the middle of “Andando El Tiempo: Camino Al Volv” — the third part of the suite, which Bley says is, “…the work of returning to a healthy and sustainable life.” — the tune never feels peppy or even happy, it just feels cautious and self-aware.
The same could also be said for “Naked Bridges / Diving Brides,” which ends Andando El Tiempo on a slight uptick. While it’s not as dour as the album’s opener, it’s nothing that will make you get up and dance.
Things on Andando El Tiempo get even mellower on the ironically titled “Saints Alive!” With Bley playing as if the piano can only be touched once every fifteen seconds, and Swallow being equally lugubrious, the track has a stark, slow beauty. Especially since Sheppard doesn’t come in with some equally airy sax until more than five minutes into this eight-and-a-half minute long track.
As beautiful and evocative as Andando El Tiempo may be, though, there is one aspect of it that keeps it from being as good as it could be. At least for me; your mileage may differ. On the album, Swallow plays an electric bass, as opposed to an acoustic, stand-up one. But while it’s not ideal, especially for someone who prefer the wooden sound of an acoustic bass, there are only a couple of moments — the first five minutes of “Saints Alive!” and during his solo in the middle of “Naked Bridges / Diving Brides” — that it’s really noticeable since Swallow’s prominence makes it sounds like he’s playing jazz guitar instead of bass. Though this is only a downside if, like me, you’re not a big fan of jazz guitar.
In the end, Andando El Tiempo is yet another solid collection of moody jazz from a trio who’ve clearly evolved as they’ve worked together. Here’s hoping they’ll work together again.