Carla Bley has never been hesitant to tilt at windmills. Like kindred spirit and onetime compatriot Charles Mingus, the pianist-composer has a low boiling point when it comes to assessing the world around her and a similarly puckish way of translating that frustration into music.
At this, the Gotham debut of the big band she assembled for her new ECM album, “Looking For America,” Bley aired that irreverence, dismissing the standard request for audience silence as “stuffy” before informing the crowd that she’d personally remain silent throughout the set, since “there are no announcements on the album.”
The centerpiece of the set and the album was “The National Anthem,” a long and winding trek through just what the title implies. Over the course of 20-odd minutes, Bley and band turned “The Star Spangled Banner” into a canvas onto which they etched a fascinating, if somewhat abstract, sonic timeline of American dispossession.
The five movement piece took on, at various points, the sound of a roadhouse celebration (keyed by jiving trumpet), a New Orleans funeral and a fearsome street fight where trombones are the weapon of choice. As the dust settled, a serene stanza of “O Canada” rose, never quite reaching a crescendo, but gently making its presence known.
Live staging of the album’s plethora of short pieces tied together by a maternal theme was less successful. While pieces like “God Mother” and “Your Mother” make reasonably attractive bridging devices on disc, the versions presented here were too static to make much of an impression and generally so brief that they seemed like little more than holding patterns.
When Bley, who divided her time between playing piano and conducting the ensemble, allowed more expansive expression, the musicians responded with verve. Particularly impressive was the closing take on “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” which skirted the edge of novelty with an appropriately barnyard-ish assortment of honks and bleats — yet ultimately dovetailed into a lovingly rustic homage to the soil itself.