Despite the inherent "goofiness," burlesque growls and squeals from the horn section and tongue-in-cheek references to standards interspersed, the music contained on Appearing Nightly is satisfyingly good fun on several levels. Nostalgically referencing the beginnings of the composer's career, when she worked as a cigarette girl at Birdland, a coat checker at other clubs, and had the opportunity of catching big bands like Count Basie's, Bley filters her memories through a modern and highly original sound that will please lovers of big band music, as well as modernists.
Recorded live in a Parisian nightclub, some of the work was commissioned, including two "food" pieces for a "Dinner Music" festival. These two, "Greasy Gravy" and "Awful Coffee" start things off in savory fashion with tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard soloing over Bley’s noir piano on the former and baritone sax player Julian Arguelles on the latter. Besides incorporating unusual sounds (like a "rooster" crowing to symbolize chicken) "Awful" contains numerous references to "food" songs like "Salt Peanuts" and "Watermelon Man" that will amuse listeners to no end.
The entire band (a big band indeed, with four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophonists, and daughter Karen Mantler on organ) is propelled by Bley associates Billy Drummond on drums and longtime partner Steve Swallow on dynamic 5-string electric bass, both of whom shine, especially Swallow, whose high-register picking is a highlight. Their long association with their bandleader makes for some exceptional interplay, and pushes the horn sections to play their very best.
Bley’s short stint as a lounge pianist also informs the overall mood of the album, in which the shadows, smoke and crowded nightclubs of the past loom large. This comes in most clearly in the centerpiece of the recording, the amazing four part opus, "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid," which is one of the most inventive and rewarding compositions I’ve heard all year.
"Someone to Watch" (a nice feminist twist on the old Gershwin title) burns and "I Hadn’t Anyone 'Till You" ends things on a romantic and appealingly wistful note. Quirky, yet reverent, Appearing Nightly is a delight for fans of big band and old style cabaret jazz with a modern approach.