Tuesday, January 22, 2008

detour (1)

[- this is the first in an occasional series, looking at recordings which are not likely to be examined in the braxtothon - some of them duos, the odd trio perhaps, or maybe groupings put together to play standards: recordings, in other words, which may well be fascinating in their own right but which represent distractions or diversions from the composer's chief concerns at that time (insofar as i can make presumptions about that!). these detours will not necessarily be heard under the strict conditions required for the braxtothon per se, but they won't be mere background music either.]

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nine duets (1993)

first impression: that mario pavone - with whom b. would soon co-lead a standards quintet, handing reed duties over to others - is another of those "watchmaker" bassists, demonstrating considerable dexterity and subtlety of touch but perhaps lacking "weight", or physical presence. in this i immediately find myself linking him with dave holland, mark helias, probably john lindberg... as opposed to, say, mark dresser or chris dahlgren, neither of whom lacks subtlety but both of whom add more weight to proceedings. (at least, that's the way i tend to hear it...) j-f jenny-clark, whose 1973 tenure in b's quartet is regrettably not documented in the official catalogue [but see the châteauvallon entries posted in december - day six, session 2] was another who could get in there and elbow the others out of the way a bit, not so concerned about delicacy perhaps...

... this impression is backed up by the fact that b. chooses a pair of ballads from among his own works for this date; but right from the off, with pavone's tune "the call", that's what i'm feeling. pavone can swing hard, walks with a spring in his step but seems to lack muscle - not for the first time i find myself wishing that this didn't have to be the case, wondering whether it's the perceived demands of b's music which lead bassists to play with more concern for accuracy than for power; or whether he simply attracts that sort of player in the first place. however... it must be noted here that my first impression is only correct up to a point, and to my surprise it's pavone's other contribution ("double", sixth in the programme) which makes me rethink. here, at least, he does show a lot more presence in the bottom end. maybe i'm being a little unfair.

that first cut does remind me of other things - it is reminiscent both of b's comp. 23c and also of some of the more playful moments of conference of the birds (which, again, is likely to have reinforced my impressions of pavone's being a relatively "lightweight" player in his approach). b. takes it on alto, and there are no doubts about the quality of the playing... but it's not necessarily an opener which promises much in the way of substance. (i don't know, maybe i'm being way too harsh here - these are all attempts to rationalise my first impressions.) far more like it is the second piece, comp. 29a, a "medium pulse line for thematic extension", written in the mid-70s but apparently unrepresented on record except here; originally conceived as one of five pieces for piano and two wind instruments, here it's (of course) a duet in which, paradoxically, the contrabass is the higher-pitched of the two voices... the maestro negotiates this one on what sounds like contrabass clarinet (could be sax? details not forthcoming in this case) and, as usual, this means time to get busy. the piece has an irresistible, push-and-pull rhythmic pulse which breathes naturally in and out; and it demands already a more physical approach from pavone, who to be fair does get stuck in there for this one, smacking the strings quite hard and even (around 1.25) making the sort of percussive noise which one associates with paul lovens - despite several replays i can't work out what surface was actually responsible for this! this piece really is a delight - at once witty and fiery, it pushes both players hard and although the written lines fall apart somewhat in the restatement, the commitment and enthusiasm are highly infectious.

i never planned to go through this track-by-track in detail, so let's try and be brief about the rest of it..! the two standards ("i remember you" and benny golson's "stablemates") are handled deftly enough, but i have trouble focussing on both of them; pavone's playing here reminds me a bit of the duo album shepp made with nhøp (but i only heard that once). the aforementioned "double" (a written line in which notes are played twice, in isolated pairs) unlocks pavone's most powerful playing and inspires a quite varied alto solo from b, who constantly dips in and out of the source material while alternating very fast lines with floating, singing phrases; as the heat is turned up, the harsher tones start to appear in the sax and pavone really pounds away at his bass, even taking over for a while as b's alto slips quietly into the background without stopping.

that still leaves four braxton originals, only one of which (the strident comp. 65) was originally conceived as a duet, though for sopranino and trombone (earliest of several recorded versions appears on elements of surprise with lewis); there's also comp. 87, a very demanding piece with extreme interval jumps in the theme, which b. takes on a selection of clarinets by the sound of it; comp. 135 starts out as a rather unorthodox-sounding ballad, slow plucked bass and breathy flute telling the story, then a solo bass passage leads to b. returning on one of the monsters he loves so much before the pattern inverts itself (this a favourite device among b's ballads), another brief bass solo leading to a closing flute section. all these numbers put pavone through the mill to some extent, and he negotiates them all skilfully if haltingly at times (but really, playing this stuff on a contrabass... god only knows how hard that is, i'd better shut up or risk offending any bassists who might be reading).

b's ballad writing - can i say it evolved after the (early) seventies, or would that be assuming too much? probably, but with the proviso that i could easily turn out to be wrong and have to take it back in due course, that's what i'm going to say about it. the ballad writing for soprano sax which appears around 1970-73, say, is characterised by a great deal of underlying menace, the lead voice(s) subjected to all manner of dangers and horrors (all this is covered in more detail here http://tinyurl.com/yp6xsh and here http://tinyurl.com/2jxlva especially); the world apparently seemed quite a hostile place to the young composer, scars of a segregated chicago upbringing perhaps still fresh. later ballads remain tense and edgy at times, but i don't hear the same fragility in the narrative voices, more confidence - albeit a watchful confidence. this may be too easy a conclusion (academia providing a degree of security and shelter which was possibly missing in earlier life)..? in any case i wanted to look finally at the third piece on the album, comp 6(O), a ballad structure from the first creative ensemble book, at least two decades old by the time this was recorded.

the piece, dedicated to frederic rzewski, was first unveiled in the trio segment of the 1972 town hall concert (http://tinyurl.com/2auyhn) - sandwiched as it was between two very fast numbers, it was almost relegated to the status of light relief... and (as you can see) i found it hard to know what to make of it at the time. but i do remember holland's careful sketching out of the landscape... how does that compare with this version, recorded more than twenty years later? here, the landscape seems a lot less sparse than i remember it from before, the arco bass stepping along confidently, pausing briefly at intervals to take stock; a gorgeous flute soars on top, plaintive at times (and with much of dolphy's gentle breathiness in the descending runs especially) but piercing at others, high notes in particular nailed with startlingly clean and aggressive attacks. all over within five and a half minutes, the piece this time strikes me as pensive rather than haunting... but i still suspect that many of its facets are not clear to me.

i've listened to the album several times lately and i do recommend it. probably best if you take what i said about bass players with a pinch of salt..? probably applies to *all* my pronouncements, let's face it ;-)

- first thoughts on for alto
- braxtothon phase two: moers 74 quartet
- charles gayle gig review
etc etc

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1 comment:

centrifuge said...

so much for brevity... and this wasn't even a "proper session". i am torn between the desire to avoid saying too little (i hate "reviews" which say almost nothing beyond what one could glean oneself just by looking at the packaging) and the fear of putting readers off by presenting them with a mountain of text... but that particular tug of war, well, you can see for yourselves which side tends to win.

**** if anyone can direct me to a simple (please!) explanation of how to embed html in ordinary text (without having to publish the individual links each time) i would be grateful. it can't be too difficult, surely? c x