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Jazz legend and pioneering female artist Carla Bley brings her music to Dartmouth

HANOVER, NH-In the ’50s, Carla Bley dropped out of high school in California, headed for New York, and took a job as a cigarette girl at the jazz club Birdland so she could soak up the music. This led to a storied career in which she composed for and led big ensembles such her sprawling 1971 avant-garde jazz-rock opera Escalator Over the Hill and bassist Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra.

Now, at 82, the legendary composer, pianist and NEA Jazz Master still tenaciously pursues beautiful and interesting sound, mainly with her trio of British saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow, the latter a musical colleague for 60 years and husband for 30. The Guardian (UK) described a recent performance by the trio as “weaving ecstasy, tumult and discovery. Every detail of this performance sounded crucial – that’s why the audience tuned in so closely.”

Both Bley’s small-group magic and big-band splendor will be on display when she performs with the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in Spaulding Auditorium of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College. In an event sure to go down in Dartmouth music history, Bley and her trio share the bill with the Coast, which will perform some of Bley’s unforgettable music for large ensemble, under the director of Coast Director Taylor Ho Bynum and with the help of Bley’s daughter Karen Mantler, a jazz pianist and composer.

You can get better acquainted with Bley and her music in a free pre-concert talk by the trio and Barbary Coast Director Taylor Ho Bynum at 6:30 pm in the Russo Atrium, Hood Museum of Art.

For six-plus decades, Bley has been a pioneer in jazz. She’s released dozens of albums that showcase her musical genius and generous wit, from maximalist orchestral pieces and works for choirs, to solo and trio recordings. Inspired by the work of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Erik Satie, she first made her mark in the 1960s, penning tunes that were recorded by Gary Burton, Jimmy Giuffre and Charlie Haden. Her landmark triple album Escalator Over the Hill, featuring more than 50 performers ranging from Linda Ronstadt and Jack Bruce to Gato Barbieri and John McLaughlin, cemented her reputation for stylistic diversity and restless creativity. Esclator is still hailed for opening the doors of musical perception with its adventurous-yet surprisingly accessible-juxtaposition of art-rock, Indian raga, free jazz, spoken-word and electronically manipulated piano. Later, she and bassist Charlie Haden co-created the seminal Liberation Orchestra, for which she wrote thrilling arrangements. With a remarkable body of work stretching across dozens of albums, Bley was recognized as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2015, one year before turning eighty.

“Carla Bley is one of the most important jazz composers of the past fifty years,” wrote Bynum in a statement about the residency. “From her revolutionary work with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra to her own brilliant big band recordings over the past several decades, her creative voice is wonderfully distinct, idiosyncratic and exciting. It will be a thrill to work on these compositions with the students of the Coast, and get to play them for the maestra. Then to hear the intimate musical conversation of Bley’s own trio, with the legendary bassist Steve Swallow and the excellent saxophonist Andy Sheppard, both deep and long-time collaborators – it should be an evening of creative music at the highest level.”