Released in 1971 after three years of production, this triple album brought together the best musicians of the time on a score combining libertarian jazz with psychedelic rock in a cabaret atmosphere with lyrics by Paul Haines. A half-century later, it’s as fascinating as ever.
The original box set, released in 1971 on JCOA Records, includes three vinyl records and a thick illustrated booklet detailing the album’s musicians and lyrics. On the last page, there is a stunning photo of Carla Bley (age 35 at the time) whose signature is preceded by the motto “Anything not told wasn’t yet known.” Approaching Escalator Over the Hill is a real experience. When you take the object in your hands to play the thirteen minutes of “Hotel Overture” on side 1, you enter a maelstrom of sounds and words that it’s difficult to then leave.
The work occupies such a singular place in jazz that we hesitate to classify it as such. Its creation, production and content are extraordinary, to the point that Carla Bley’s biographer, Amy C. Beal, described Escalator Over the Hill as “the quintessential anti-establishment statement of its time.” The composer is often considered to be the work’s only author. But the golden cover of the box also mentions Paul Haines. The story of their collaboration began in January 1967, when the Canadian author — who lived in New Mexico and was preparing to move to India — sent a poem to his American friend. When she received the letter, Carla Bley discovered that the poem resonated with a composition she was working on, “Detective Writer Daughter.” This is how the idea of an opera, or more precisely of a “chronotransduction,” was born; the duo adopted this term coined by Sherry Speeth, a scientist friend of Paul Haines. The long-distance collaboration lasted three years. In a text published shortly after the album’s release, Carla Bley explained, “Paul sent a series of texts from India; I put them on the piano and stared at them for hours. Sooner or later, some lines seemed to have a melody in them. So all I had to do was work from that foundation, following the form and rhythm of the words.”
For the instrumentation, Carla Bley mainly relied on the members of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, the collective founded in New York in 1965 with Michael Mantler, the Austrian who was then her husband. Among the forty or so musicians involved were Gato Barbieri, Charlie Haden, Roswell Rudd, Don Cherry, John McLaughlin, Paul Motian, Jimmy Lyons, Enrico Rava and Jimmy Knepper, the jazz avant-garde set of the time. But there were also rock personalities such as Linda Ronstadt, Jack Bruce (Cream singer and bassist) and Don Preston (member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) on the Moog synthesizer. “If anyone wanted to be on the album, they could be,” explained Carla Bley, who gave roles to vocalists Jeanne Lee, Sheila Jordan, Howard Johnson, and Paul Jones (member of the Manfred Mann group), while recruiting Viva, an actress close to Andy Warhol. Even Karen Mantler, the then four-year-old daughter of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, was involved. The project was so massive that financial difficulties regularly put it at risk. Faced with the impossibility of bringing the army of musicians together in the same place at the same time (although about thirty were gathered at the RCA studios in New York), the performers were often recorded separately, then the tracks were assembled later during mixing, which proved to be one of the album’s great accomplishments.
Carla Bley’s genius was to make accessible what could easily be the opposite: a bloated opera whose songs include poetry, surrealism, mysticism, and a few political issues, and whose characters (Jack, David, Ginger) evolve outside of any narrative logic. For nearly two hours, the triple album’s six sides grind the magma of the artistic concepts that emerged at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s — the encounter of radical improvisations and sophisticated compositions in jazz, the Doors’ psychedelia and Zappa’s Dadaism, the Indian raga that permeated the jazz-rock, and even country and minimalism elements — in a general atmosphere borrowed from Kurt Weill’s cabarets. Carla Bley, who even imagined making a film of it, only performed it a handful of times in Europe in the late 1990s. Both a reflection of its time and a futuristic projection, it nevertheless continues to fascinate for what it combines: freedom and framework, the sensory and the cerebral, the absurd and the serious. It is an avalanche that buries the listener all the more relentlessly because it never stops. At the end of the last song on the last album (” … And It’s Again”), the diamond falls into a locked groove that recites a mantra, over and over again.