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Carla Bley - Escalator Over the Hill (with Paul Haines) CD (album) cover


Carla Bley


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.44 | 23 ratings

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5 stars This album has fascinated me ever since I first read about it in the Rolling Stone Record Guide, back way before we had this wonderful Internet thingy. The album was described as some sort of magical universe, a completely unprecedented convergence of rock, jazz, avant garde, and surrealist theater. And yet, even that glowing writeup did not prepare me for the shock I got when I finally located a copy and listened with libretto in hand. 20 years later, it still amazes me. I consider it a high water mark in my collection, a monumental effort the likes of which have rarely been attempted, let alone equaled.

Carla Bley, along with a cast of close to 100 musicians in various groupings, as well as lyricist Paul Haines, released this 3-record set in 1971, the culmination of several years of work. The music alternates between big-band jazz (specializing in a cheesy cabaret vibe as befits the decadent hotel where the story takes place), psychedelic acid rock (with Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, Paul Motian, and Bley forming a dream team of sorts), avant garde drones (described here as "phantom music", and used to make stark contrasts against the often busy music that occupies the majority of the album), and some stunning "desert music", a spine-chilling concoction of Don Cherry's abstract trumpet shrieks, woozy hand percussion, and a strange drone tapestry created from the seamless blending of violin, cello, and Moroccan clarinet.

Most of the tracks have vocals too, people from Don Preston (Mothers of Invention) to Paul Jones (Manfred Mann) to Jack Bruce (Cream) to Linda Ronstadt and even Carla Bley herself (not known as a singer, though to be fair, neither is Don Preston), and many more too numerous to mention, taking the mic at various points. Each singer plays a character in an absurd, somewhat frightening tale taking place inside a cheesy hotel full of low-life degenerates and their vices. Musical themes are introduced and revisited, the scenery shifts without notice, and the whole shebang is just one huge head-scratcher. I still don't know what it all means, but that's not really the point. The overall mood is one of almost complete loss of rationality, in a world where sense and morality have no place. It's dark comedy at its most surreal.

One of the most impressive things about this album is how it maintains a slowly climbing level of emotional intensity for the duration of its length, and just when you think you've heard all it has to offer, it offers one surprise after another. The entire first side of the 3 record set is the "Hotel Overture", a jazz big band arrangement of several of the musical themes that will pop up later. The highlight comes in the middle of the piece, where over a funeral cadence (later to be presented as the grim "Smalltown Agonist" on side three) we hear tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri take a solo cadenza that you won't soon forget. Weeping, shrieking, SCREAMING through his sax, it still makes my hair stand on end. Ironically, even though as an "overture" it's supposed to provide clues of what's to come, it's a pretty deceptive beginning to the album. I can imagine someone hearing it and coming to the conclusion that this is a jazz album. Ha! Just you wait.

On side two, the meat of the album begins. "This is Here..." opens with the "phantom music", a very long fade-in, with scary noises flying in and out of the mix. I believe these noises are actually the music from the END of the album, played backwards! Finally Carla intones the benediction in a spooky voice over spooky organ drones and voices. This is jazz? Then Don Preston (as the "Lion") sings the somber and brief "Like Animals", one of the most succinct and beautiful spots on the album - his role seems to be that of the "Tramp" in Shakespeare's plays -- the wise and humble outsider commenting, unseen, on the action. Then we get the clambering trainwreck of the title piece - "Escalator Over the Hill" often sounds like a drunken cabaret band - charging onward heavy-handedly, only to stumble and nearly fall every now and then, with multiple singers singing one-liners from within Cecil Clark's Hotel Lobby. Phantom music returns, and Carla Bley repeats the phrase "Stay Awake! Please! Stay Awake!" in increasingly frenzied tones. A brief vocal piece called "Ginger and David" introduces two more characters, a desperate pair of strangers fated to shack up together very soon. An instrumental reprise of the title track closes side two.

A brief fanfare opens side three, and then we get the electric rock band of Bruce, McLaughlin, Motian, and Bley ("Jack's Traveling Band" in the libretto) spewing bile about "Businessmen" in the lobby. After a reprise of "Ginger and David", Linda Ronstadt (as Ginger) sings the closest thing this album has to a conventional pop song, the pleading "Why". Despite it's fluffy veneer, the lyrics are rather grotesque, and Bley joins in towards the end to add to the confusion. Bley and Bruce duet on the chaotic and complex "Detective Writer Daughter". A small brass band plays a "Slow Dance". And the side ends on a most gloomy note, with Manfred Mann's Paul Jones singing deathly melodies and graphic lyrics of violence over funereal music in "Smalltown Agonist". Gato Barbieri returns with some mad saxophone in the fadeout.

Side four feels a bit less serious and more whimsical, although this ultimately proves to be even more ominous than before - as if acknowledging that things (in the story) couldn't really get worse. The music is light and playful, and although it gets melancholy, it doesn't get quite so doomy. "Over Her Head" is a confusing piece of music sung by Bley, never staying in one place too long. "Little Pony Soldier" features a remarkable Bruce vocal over a simple guitar figure. ""Holiday in Risk" returns to the schizo mood of "Over Her Head". Everything is getting all topsy turvy and it's hard to focus on reality anymore. It seems like things can't get any weirder. But there's still one record to go. On to side five, glorious side five...

There is a long, eerie fade-in, with odd sounds slowly making themselves known until we're fully into "A.I.R. (All India Radio)", the first time we've yet heard the incredible "desert band" of Don Cherry on the album. The sound of this grouping of musicians is unlike any I've heard. One of the few purely instrumental numbers on the album, it nonetheless makes its point absolutely clear: we have now taken the album to a new plane of consciousness, or perhaps unconsciousness - everything below us on sides one through four seems so small now from up here. Having shifted gears to terra incognita, we move onward to what is probably the centerpiece of the whole album, "Rawalpindi Blues". Jack's Traveling Band starts us off, with John McLaughlin taking an especially inspired guitar solo. Then unexpectedly, the song starts to decompose and morph into a return to Don Cherry's desert ensemble, a transition that really makes for one of the most surreal musical turns on the whole album - and it continues for what seems like ages, the remainder of the album side, a heartfelt cry of spiritual longing, with a bottomless reservoir of regret and sadness.

Side six is ostensibly a continuation of that track ("End of Rawalpindi"), but the mood is suddenly much brighter, with the rock band coming back to pep things up again. This continuation goes for a further nine minutes. As if reflecting on all that has happened in these emotional, confusing album sides, Don Preston returns for a reprise of "Like Animals" called "End of Animals". I just love the melody of that song. And then we're off into the big Finale: "....And it's Again" (by the way, the word "again" seems to be a recurring word/theme in this work). This track tries to pull everything together into one piece pulling musical themes and characters into a spiraling conclusion that seems to introduce more questions than answers. It lasts for about 9 minutes, but it seems to have no beginning, middle, or end, it just mixes all these things together into a confusing stew of words, phrases, musical links, all stirred in a woozy, circular pattern. Far from the cathartic climax we might have foolishly expected, this is everything regressing back into its infant form, eventually dwindling down to nearly nothing but a few disembodied voices and drones (which, remember, were played backwards for us to open "This is Here..."). The circular life cycle encompassing the album has completed. We are back where we started, and what the hell just happened?

And then everything is gone.

Except for a low buzzing hummmmmm, the "phantom music" with which we began our journey, lasting to infinity. A locked groove on the LP sees to that, unless you have the strength to pick up the needle. For those of you with CD or mp3 players (guilty!), the final track plays out this hum for approximately 20 extra minutes to replicate the experience of infinite hum. Don't worry, there are no surprise noises hidden in there, just an eerie hummmmm... and it's agaaiinnnnnn.

Awarding this five stars is a no-brainer for me. One of the best albums in my collection.

HolyMoly | 5/5 |


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