o here I am, faced with the task of explaining and justifying to you the piece of music which I regard as the greatest ever made, the gold standard against which I qualitatively measure all other music, the definitive record which, 30 years after its original appearance, may still render all other records redundant. In many ways, this is the article against which, by definition, all other articles of mine must be measured. And of course it will probably turn out to be the least effective. Because it is my duty to convince you that the greatest record ever made is a triple-album (double-album in CD format) boxed-set jazz-rock opera – no, not an opera, a “chronotransduction” (literally “a leading across time,” half Greek, half Latin, meaning nothing but echoing everywhere) built upon lyrics which may well be meaningless outside their immediate, purely musical effect.
No protest, no social commentary. No expression of love, of grief, of hope, of despair. It is literally whatever you want to make of it. It is devoid of every quality which you might assume would qualify it to be the greatest of all records. And yet it is that tabula rasa in its heart, the blank space which may well exist at the very heart of all music, revealing the hard truth that we have to fill in the blanks, we have to interpret what is being played and sung, and our interpretation is the only one which can possibly be valid, as we cannot discern any perspective other than our own.
There is, perhaps, a parallel between Escalator Over The Hill being the greatest record ever made and “Bohemian Rhapsody” routinely voted the greatest single ever made in polls – the latter admits within its own existence that “nothing really matters.” It means nothing, but our adoption of it means everything. It stands there for us to admire. Did it ever have a use? Even Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona has a purpose. And yet (pace Welles on Chartres) it only exists because I say it does.
Escalator, to be brutal, exists because the jazz composer Carla Bley one day heard Sgt Pepper and decided to match it. For lyrics she asked her friend Paul Haines, then resident in India, to come up with something. He filled a few notebooks and sent them to her. She spent most of 1967 setting it to music. In November 1968 recording started and continued intermittently over the next few years. Financially it almost finished Bley and her then husband, trumpeter/producer Michael Mantler, driving them some $90,000 into debt. But they persisted, and recording was finally completed in June 1971. With the exception of post-1967 Miles Davis, it is perhaps the most brilliant example of pop influencing and leading a jazz enterprise.
Not that this was jazz per se. Many of the stalwarts of Bley and Mantler’s Jazz Composer’s Association (JCOA) participated; a distinguished cast of improvisers including trumpeters Don Cherry and Enrico Rava, trombonist Roswell Rudd, tuba player Howard Johnson, clarinetist Perry Robinson, saxophonists Gato Barbieri, Jimmy Lyons and Dewey Redman, violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Paul Motian and singers Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. But this was only part of the 54-strong collective personnel. Also present were the likes of John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce, Linda Ronstadt, Don Preston and Paul Jones, and even wilder cards such as Warhol superstar Viva, who acts as narrator throughout the piece. Not to mention several amateur musicians and non-professional “singers” – the influence of Christian Wolff making itself known here, using untutored tones and anti-technical techniques to simultaneously deflate and inflate our expectations. As with John Stevens’ experiments with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, everybody’s contribution counted. Literally, it was Bley throwing everything into a pot and seeing what sort of broth would emerge. It was everything she knew about music up to and including 1971. And even in the fertile climate of the early ‘70s, where fusion, to paraphrase Steve Lake, had yet to be defined as interchangeable with “short cut to the bank,” Escalator cast its net very wide indeed. It was as if Bley had set out to sum up everything that had happened in the 20th century, musically.
Really, the “jazz” content of Escalator begins and ends with its first track, the “Hotel Overture.” A brilliantly orchestrated and conducted 17-piece ensemble essays the various themes of the piece in a disciplined and concise way, leaving plenty of space for the featured soloists – here Roswell Rudd, Perry Robinson, Gato Barbieri and Charlie Haden – to stamp their personalities on the work.
(The structure is immensely complicated; some of the character parts are divided between singers and musicians, the latter expressing emotions beyond the articulacy of the former)
Certainly one of the most awesome moments in contemporary jazz is witnessing Barbieri’s tenor surfacing slowly from the ensemble like a U-boat to explode into near hysteria. And the way in which Haden’s bass restores humility and sets the stage for the beginning of the piece proper is an architectural wonder. Most jazz critics to this day haven’t got beyond this 14-minute opening section.
The work itself “begins” with a hum, slowly fading in. As it reaches its peak, terrible harmonies begin to emerge, voices, remembered pasts, detonate everywhere, a life rewinding itself (which turns out to be the truth; this is in fact the ending of the work played backwards). Eventually it is obliterated by the “Phantom Music” – Bley, Mantler and Preston on various keyboards, electronics and effects – before a dead-sounding brass ensemble plays a forlorn fanfare, and voices float in and out of the mix over two unresolved piano lines and frog noises (“Bullfrogs are having their throats cut”). Wherever this record will take us, this is where we will end up.
Bridged by Don Preston singing “Like Animals,” we then move into Cecil Clark’s Old Hotel, probably based on the Chelsea Hotel. Most of this work would seem to be centered around the somewhat sleazy exploits of this hotel’s clientele. The title song “Escalator Over The Hill” is the nearest we get to a sing along; very Kurt Weill in its structure (although also owing something to near forgotten early jazz/classical/theatrical ventures such as Ernst Krenek’s 1927 Jonny Spielt Auf), before boiling over into a brief freeform scrum, then settling back down into its united Sunday school choral front. Following more death knell electronica in “Stay Awake” (the “Phantom Music,” by the way, eerily prophesizes what the Residents would get up to later in the decade), there is a ballad “Ginger And David” sung by Sheila Jordan with great relish (particularly the line, “A sickman she’d sought for the night/To fuck her to sleep”).
After some more Weill-esque brass interludes, and a reprise of the “Escalator” main theme, we are suddenly thrust without warning into electricity – Jack’s Travelling Band, with Jack Bruce on vocals and bass and John McLaughlin on guitar. “Businessmen” launches what may be the definitive sequence of avant-pop songs. Its monstrous riff doubles back on itself (the influence of Can is felt here as well as the more obvious ones of Lifetime and Mahavishnu) and again is drowned beneath the ominous waves of “Phantom Music.” There are several career-best performances by some of the musicians involved in this record, and there is an urgency and acidity to McLaughlin’s playing in particular which he never quite equaled in intensity elsewhere.
Then we get “Why,” a beautiful C&W ballad sung by Linda Ronstadt as “Ginger” – the innocent heroine, one supposes – with Haden providing some Southern harmony work. The way that the song ducks from its expected climax, to rest on its original unresolved chord sequence, and how Ronstadt meets it with her delivery of the word “heart” is among the most heart-wrenching endings of all pop songs.
“Detective Writer Daughter” sets Bruce’s studied vocals and Bley’s deliberately strained singing against a wall of brass. Again and again (and “again” is the key word in the whole piece) I am reminded of what Zappa’s music might have sounded like if all his yea-sayers were correct, stripped of the misanthropy and essential lack of punctum. The dynamics, ranging from awed silence to top-C hysteria in a matter of seconds, make for sublime but disturbing pop.
After a delicate, beautifully orchestrated interlude for brass – “Slow Dance (Transductory Music)” which may well be Bley’s finest piece of brass writing, comparable with Duane Tatro’s deceptively impressionist soundscapes of the ‘50s (see, for instance, 1957’s Music For Brass on Columbia) – we are led into the gothic brutalism of a torch song that is “Smalltown Agonist.” Sung with great restraint by Paul Jones, who appears to be singing about a horrendous rape which has occurred in the hotel premises (Ginger being the victim), the orchestra, drums and piano swell up and around him as various other vocal lines intrude and work in parallel. The tension builds up as finally Gato Barbieri’s tenor rises out of nowhere and screams its pain, its bloodied grief, before settling back down into numbness. A stunning performance.
The mood of the piece now becomes darker. Bley’s sinister monologue on “End Of Head” segues into another Weill waltz “Over Her Head,” partly performed by the Original Amateur Hotel Band (a kind of Scratch Orchestra set-up of untutored musicians) but finally leading to a desolate Ronstadt vocal which is near unbearable in its poignancy, culminating in Bley and Ronstadt harmonizing “Contemplating suicide/As protection from fraud...” A tragic end in sight, and another segue into a tormented chamber performance – the Tim Buckley of Happy Sad about to be derailed by George Crumb – “Little Pony Soldier,” largely sung by a double-tracked Jack Bruce and backed by an avant-Americana acoustic line-up including Karl Berger’s nagging vibes and Dewey Redman’s plaintive post-Ornette alto. The David Ackles of Subway to the Country taken into untrammelled waters.
Then, a fairground calliope whirls into atonal action as Bill Leonard’s robotic monologue is delivered in “Oh Say, Can You Do?” We dive into – well, a piano ballad sung by Bley (“It’s never nearly over, yet”) which is suddenly hijacked by a demented Tod Papageorge into a stoned nightclub sing along called “Holiday In Risk” which plays with the stuck-needle groove (far more concisely and cuttingly than on Bley’s later Musique Mecanique) and ends with Bley staring at us, singing: “Stop refusing to explain...Give up explaining.” Which of course leads us into a Palm Court Hotel Lobby Band swinging through the “Holiday In Risk Theme” Glenn Miller-style. Barbieri leads the ensemble as they fade out into God knows where.
We have now arrived at the end of side four of the original six-sided vinyl edition. So far we have witnessed an unprecedented, certainly pre-post modern collision (more fission than fusion) between avant-pop, European light opera, post-Darmstadt electronica which also foresees the Iceman Cometh atmosphere which was to drench everything from Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation to Portishead’s Dummy. Not to mention foreseeing John Zorn. Or David Thomas. Or indeed the whole fucking No Wave scene (you think I’m wrong? Listen to the near “Song For Che” bassline which propels the controlled chaos of “Helen Forsdale” and tell me I’m wrong). You know even two-thirds of the way through that this is a sublime dream of a journey, an impossible and unreproduceable gallimaufry of pluralistic aesthetics. This is like everything you have ever heard, mashed together, and thus like nothing you have ever heard.
You wonder, with two sides still to go, whether this record can actually get any better, any more sublime.
Enter Don Cherry and the Desert Band.
And now, even though what we have already heard is demonstrably a dream – and Escalator is one of the few records about which I can truly say I dreamt, from beginning to end, before I even heard it – the music, unbelievably, moves one dimension higher, and becomes the most sublime dream within a dream. India. The Desert Band.
“AIR (All India Radio)” seems to owe something in its main melodic motif to Wayne Shorter’s “Mahjong,” but this is merely the starting point for an odyssey which seems to come from a fourth world beyond even the remit of what we have already heard. Cherry’s trumpet interacts beautifully with Leroy Jenkins’ violin, Calo Scott’s cello and the Moroccan clarinet of Souren Baronian. A drone which could last forever. A light which pierces the darkness set up on side four.
And then, perhaps the most sublime 12 minutes of music ever created, “Rawalpindi Blues.” Beginning as a blues-ish lament by Jack Bruce, both he and McLaughlin drive the song into near overdrive. McLaughlin plays as though there is a gun pointed at his temple. And yes, I’ve not said it yet, but there are other lyrics printed in the booklet, lyrics which are not sung but which you have to read in tandem with instrumental passages and/or solos. McLaughlin just screams “it’s again it’s again it’s AGAIN” without having to open his mouth. And a word to Paul Motian, who has the unenviable task of handling all the drumming duties throughout Escalator; what a masterfully subtle percussionist he is. Just as everything is about to build up to an orgasmic crescendo (hear Bruce’s tactile, “When we werrrrrrre alone...”)
it suddenly cuts off into a drone
“What will we ever do with you?” wonders the late singer-songwriter Steve Ferguson (sounding uncannily like Michael Stipe) over Bley’s multitracked muezzin wail
before we return to the Desert Band
and Don Cherry plays the most grief-stricken lament you have ever heard, outdoing even Miles at his most harrowing and consoling. The heart of the record is reached, and as the Desert Band float in some unimaginable nirvana, this music goes beyond surrealism, goes beyond sublime and becomes something very near to holy. In the unhurried grace of this performance, Cherry and the Desert Band come awfully near to whatever may be described as “the truth” in music, nearer than any other musician I’ve ever heard. Whether on trumpet, flute or his own muezzin wail of a voice (“again” again), he never cut deeper than he did here. And of all the instrumental combinations on this record, the Desert Band is the only ensemble which does not require additional lyrics. They speak, very literally, through their music.
Side six. The final furlong. We start with “End of Rawalpindi” which reintroduces Jack’s Travelling Band with a new Ginger – Jeanne Lee – who after the first thematic statement (yes, you guessed it, “it’s again”) takes over and improvises over a blissful psychedelic groove, worrying at the word “again” like a bone, twisting it and embracing it. Eventually the Desert Band return and the two ensembles finally fuse together, playing as one. There is hope...
...but not at Cecil Clark’s Old Hotel, to which we now return. Don Preston sings “End Of Animals,” a bleaker, revised reprise of his opening ballad “Like Animals,” and then we’re into the closing section “And It’s Again” where all the participants take their final bows as the hotel collapses around them in irretrievable debris, leaving us with the need for some kind of cathartic release. We are finally left with the original Phantom Music, now sounding like Cardew’s AMM hoovering up the debris and emptying the dustbag into cosmic nothingness. Voices come at us from every direction (an influence of the Velvets’ “Murder Mystery”?) declaiming “truths” which are “closer than the ear can hear.” And ultimately a synth drone which blossoms into a massed descending choral lament as the voices spell your end, standing at the edge of the world, on the precipice of existence. It is left to Jack Bruce to sound the Last Trump. Emotionally devastating – and devastated - he howls the word “again” just like he howled the title of Lifetime’s “One Word” over and over, until, his soul spent, he subsides into silence, and the choir resolves into the same monotonal hum with which the work began. On the original vinyl, the drone wound into a locked groove, so it could theoretically play forever. On the CD it is allowed to run for whatever space there is left on the CD.
It is simultaneously unlike, and above, every other record. Because there is in fact no meaning there other than that with which you are prepared to credit it. Because in the end we are left with our own ears to listen to this song however we choose to listen to it. Because perhaps it tells us what a trivial pursuit music really is, and at the same time how indispensable to a meaningful existence it in fact is. Because it sums everything up and dares to pretend a future – even though all the influences quoted above are indirect; no one has ever cited Escalator as a direct influence on their music. Like its cinematic equivalent, Last Year In Marienbad, it might have to exist above the realm of “influence” – it is just there, reproaching us with its ambition. No one, least of all Carla Bley, has subsequently come even within an orbit’s distance of its achievements. It is unparalleled anywhere in music. I – or can I adopt the royal/Wyndham Lewis “we”? – know it can never be bettered, that the best we can do is scratch lovingly at the tip of its own iceberg. It is, in the most literal of senses, untouchable.
By: Marcello Carlin
Published on: 2002-12-02