Wednesday, April 30, 2008

braxtothon '08: week one - behind the scenes

this is like one of those "making of" dvd extras that most people never watch... and those that do, can never bring themselves to sit through more than once ;-) but i still wanted to write it.

* * *

at the time, i thought i was just booking a random week off in march. this was months ago... well, i knew that it was mrs c's birthday, early in the week, but had no idea back then that easter was gonna be so early. in the event, my "week" (in which i'd planned to relaunch the braxtothon, in time for spring) turned out to be weds and thurs... and even those were early shifts for mrs c, so that my day began far earlier than i'd have wished, in the cold, with a dog walk; then i had to try not to collapse in a heap, remembering that by 4.45 the car would be pulling up again and the airspace in the house would no longer be all mine to fill... so... this time i figured i would try something diferent: listen while i had the listening time, write later. indeed, with mrs c at home but busy for most of the easter weekend, that left me three days (ha!) to write up the whole lot.

or something. well, this was the last planned piece - i'm writing it precisely three weeks later (i.e. tues). still, that probably makes it sound worse than it was in the end! it's true that portions of the last ten or eleven articles have had to be dragged out of me, sentence by sentence, para by para... and at times it seemed as if it would never end, but it's never felt like a waste of time and i've never lost interest. some of it came easier, some of it was pretty torturous - but i do think that on balance a bit more time and thought and distance can only be of benefit, in getting to think about the music. works for me, anyway, cos here i am finally with one day off before week two begins with a one-off day, but extended into the evening... not sure yet exactly how to put that time best to use.

* * *

week one - weds

001 fall '74.

'nuff said... having finally written proper braxtothon notes for this album, i backed right off everything for the rest of the day, took it very easy indeed. in fact i chucked a dvd on and stayed well clear of listening to any music for a few hours. later on i felt totally depleted, for whatever reason. when i did go back to the stereo, it was with demon days by gorillaz, while i washed up - it's an album i like a lot, but of course it now seemed as if each (short) song went on far too long.

week one - thurs

this was a really good day, from start to finish, and despite the weather letting me down big time (it's supposed to be nice on these days! i thought i had made my wishes clear on that one) i came out of it feeling great.

listening sessions had to be squeezed around other little things, but that worked fine, because the obvious schedule for the day was: 002 news from the 70s - 003 five pieces 1975 - 004 montreux. easy, about 90 mins music in total, and a natural day's excursion since it charts a short period near the end of wheeler's association (with the group, and almost with the music). anyway, that worked out fine and it was also a staggeringly rare instance of my doing everything else i wanted to do also. the rest of the day went really well too, even though the weather didn't play along.

session 002 is a little longer than it need be, because i have figured out in advance (coming downstairs with a small pile of cds, gathered from a careful trawl) that once i've heard the gröningen 23e, i shall want to compare it quickly with the moers one, and shall then go back to the '73 châteauvallon concert to determine now whether that began with 23e as well. so, the may '75 version (which i actually last heard on the last night of october, after the half-arsed "session" of fall '74 which i was trying to get away with - got nothing of lasting value from the piece on that occasion, but then i didn't even make notes... i was fooling myself, phase two had already finished) left me feeling secure, at least, that i wasn't gonna get this piece mixed up any more, i just had to remember that it was the ayler piece and that's it right there, the transition to ecstasy. having listened to it in '75, i then carried on as i'd intended, gave a brief few mins to the '74 moers rendition, which is in reverse (i.e. grows out of a link-phase following the bass solo), then put on châteauvallon - and straight away, this time, recognised not 23e but 23a of course, as described elsewhere. it sounded a bit different in those early days, but that's what it was all right.

for some reason i had a complete mental block when it comes to 23e - i.e. i kept forgetting that it was also recorded in the studio... and up next, i mean right away.

session 003... oh yeah, of course. - probably it's because when i went through the archives looking for playlist material, i omitted anything longer than about ten mins - not totally true, but it ruled out the studio 23e which is almost 17 mins in length. i would have heard that album probably only once, at the time i downloaded it last summer, and until recently i had no more contact with it, just had not found time to get back to it (true of most things... which is what triggered the braxtothon in the first place, i.e. the desire to find the time to listen to all the braxton i'd amassed! i didn't realise all this writing was gonna burst forth)

anyway, the results of this session are already known, 23e dominates proceedings to a great extent.

during the lunch break, synchronicity has provided me with journal violone by barre phillips for accompaniment... famously the first ever solo bass album - or first improvised, at any rate..? either way, it's pretty amazing stuff, some of bp's arco work in particular (way down at the bottom end) so powerfully impressive that it leaves me wondering whether b. ever hooked up with this guy, and if not, why not.... [later on, done with the sessions and on the net, i had juba lee by marion brown, from '66 but with an opener whose abstract-looking title ("512e12") may be more reminiscent of tristano than braxton, but whose theme is oddly familiar, almost a sort of pre-echo of what our man was to specialise in a little later.]

session 004 leaves me in slightly odd state, pleased to have got through it in a way - although a short session (montreux, three numbers in two album tracks), it didn't catch my enthusiasm especially and by the end i'm really thinking, that was it for wheeler - of course we know that it was pretty much it for wheeler, so i'm not pretending to have reached the conclusion completely naively but... by now you can tell something is missing.

in the evening, then, i went over to my mate's place. he has a lovely hut, secluded away on the edge of a forest and a stone's throw from the beach below; everything about the place, i mean everything about it, is imbued with magic for me. usually when i go there, the weather turns glorious, even if it was vile before - today the weather mojo is well and truly not workin', it remains grey and horrible on the way over (which itself takes me through a bizarrely wild and unpredictable territory, and tonight the luck was bad, all sorts of freak hazards - but none of them involved me) and on the way back we get wet and cold walking me back up to the car, not stopping for a moon-lit gaze at the bay and the horizon, as we usually would (my friend passed up the offer of a job in the florida keys, to return to this place) because it was so unpleasant. the full moon coinciding with the vernal equinox did not bring any good will to anyone, it seems, but if there was no good news in that freezing invader of a wind, there was no malice for us, either... we weren't caught up in any of it but it wasn't a happy story.

mmm... and of course in between there was self-treatment with remedial herbs, for repairing damage to the shen and aiding the stream of insight... and there was braxton (couldn't believe i was playing him braxton, but fall '74 really is that listener-friendly - of course it helps that in his case the spacey, whacked-out soundscapes of side two are considerably less of a hurdle than they would be for most jazz heads). i knew i was gonna get away with it as soon as the conversation turned to blackbirds.

on the way home, since it's a special occasion, i had playlist three on... very rarely listen to jazz of any variety while driving, never mind this sort of thing... far too distracting... anyway, tonight's different, so it emerges that tonight is when the penny finally drops, i realise that i have actually placed the only modern pulse-track piece (from 1984) right before the track which started it all, 23g. this is the second time i hear the piece with enough attention that i get frustrated with it. still, the rain stops at least, 23g gives way to the sublime gorgeousness that is 6(o) and my luck holds: just in time, the petrol light comes on to remind me of what i'd forgotten, that i need gas before i get home - somewhat distracted by the music, i'd passed the petrol station already and had to loop back. that's just a minor hassle: if i'd forgotten and had actually run out, this could have been right at the top of the hill in between our two locations... on a winding, poorly-maintained single-track road through weather-beaten farmland, in the shadow of the old mental hospital (whose name no-one round here will mention without practically crossing themselves) - i love driving this challenging road, love driving between his place and mine in either direction (traffic permitting) but the idea of getting stuck up there of all places, and on a night like that... heh heh, no thanks, you can keep that one. it's the sort of countryside (familiar to me from growing up in somerset) of which i would be tempted to believe anything, bodies stacked in barns being the least outlandish of it. and why did they always build the asylums in places like that?? the only places that would have them, i suppose...

anyway... got home fine, mrs c. snug and warm, dogs warm and welcoming... and after catching up, i disappear off to mail mcclintic sphere and then to put together the outlines for what i want to do in writing this week up.

* * *

week one - fri

knackered. doubling my morning coffee intake did not help at all, it has to be said. neither did anything else. yet somehow i did manage to write up the whole of fall '74 by the time i crawled back into bed. it took me all day and was like getting blood out of a stone, really had to be laid out word by word at times (made me feel sure it would be utterly unreadable) but at least i got it out of the way. that had been quite a daunting task actually so fuck it, i felt better for having done it! but it wasn't exactly a dynamic day and all i could think was: first writing day like first listening day, second will be like the second, i.e. great.

week one - sat

and three weeks later... etc.

- no, that's not quite true, but it is the short, simplified version... basically the next two weeks saw me dragging my arse along the ground and scraping the stuff out, line by line - five pieces 1975 required re-listening before i wrote up the notes, in segments - then finally, after i'd decided it was now pointless to do montreux after so long and made more sense to wait, i had a little burst in the last few days which saw me simply sit down and let it pour out - not in a cataract, but still, now i'm at the other end, i.e. sort of in week two i guess, it didn't feel too bad getting here. there is certainly no sense this time of a rushing stream pouring out of me (as there was in oct) but what's emerging this time will, i hope, turn out to be rather more measured and hence (this is the important bit!) more sustainable. i reckon i can keep this up for a while without neglecting other areas of my life... besides, the music is calling me back already... see you in week two, your time :)

meantime this concludes the saga of braxtothon '08: week one

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

braxtothon '08: week one roundup

some general musings, some conclusions - firstly about the line-up, and secondly about b's approach(es) to the subject of composition, and the numbering which eventually took place.

it's amazing, at the end of 1975 - and i am at the end of 1975, as previously explained; montreux... is going to have to wait, but i did listen to it - to think that the core quartet which convened in london in 1971 has survived all this time, give or take, albeit it's only more recently that it's become a regular touring band. amazing, because when we look back from the new millennium it's a little puzzling, with the best will in the world, to think that two members of the quartet stuck it out as long as they did. yet that's the way it actually happened. ok, so let's address them separately, and since i am always going on about this (without ever really explaining it), i'll start with dave holland.

what we have to remember about holland at this point is that in '75 he was still only a few years out of miles' band, and had done nothing since but work with high-quality, questing creative musicians (and good for him). a technically superb all-round player, holland seems to have known that the only way he could keep learning and improving was to stay working at the highest available level(s). his debut as a leader, for which of course he'd been able to call on his colleague and his own leader, as well as a special guest (and future leader!) was well received, indeed became more or less an instant classic as far as i can tell, albeit on a small scale, but it did not go to the young bassist's head; he didn't immediately leave to pursue his own career. no, it's not until the early 1980s that he suddenly seems to figure out the formula which will leave him financially sorted for life; and i don't wish to make that sound spiteful, after all braxton's own formula was academia and when offered it, he took it, gratefully enough i think - there is nothing wrong with this, and remember, there is nothing inherently virtuous about being poor; besides, holland the writer, holland the musician may have settled long since into relative comfort (that's as far as i'm going with that) but holland the bandleader continues to be a nurturing presence, at least; and he remains the exception to one of miles' generalisations, namely that when a white cat quits your band, don't matter how good you treated him, he goes off to play with a bunch of white cats, like bill evans did... well, for what it's worth, holland never did, indeed (and here's a strange thing) holland has pretty much remained an ethnic minority in his own bands ever since he became a leader. i have no idea whether he consciously operates a positive-discrimination policy, but in any case, i'd guess it can only be encouraging for a young black player to know that the door is always open, that a slot in the most prestigious, symphony-hall-serenading small group still going could realistically be his... oh yes, and holland has also always found room for the trombone! - albeit in this case that hasn't meant regular employment for any more than two or three guys, over the last decade or three...

... anyway, back in the mid-seventies, holland was only interested, it seems, in advancing his musicianship as far as possible. or maybe he didn't yet believe he had it in him to be a leader, who knows. his next two releases under his own name were as guaranteed uncommercial as it is possible to be - solo bass, solo cello. and in the meantime, not only was he happy in the braxton quartet, he was planning on sticking around, and man, things were about to go off the deep end.

kenny wheeler is another matter. at this stage, and with three short listening sessions, all dating from within a few months, in one day, i found it impossible not to think that wheeler had gone as far as he could with this. numerous times i have found myself thinking (and writing) the same thing, i.e. that for a player who seems to embrace his freedom with the same sense of happy surprise each time, he doesn't actually seem to be very inspired by it. the music is starting to suffer as a result. - i'm in danger of getting crucified for this! might have to emigrate... i've gotta say it. - all too often, the rhythm section drops right off the pace when wheeler takes a solo, and the effect is a quick downward spiral each time: holland and altschul (or cooper, or whoever) maybe think, better lay off a bit for kenny, he doesn't want the water as hot as mr braxton likes it; and wheeler maybe thinks oh, where did everyone go? what am i doing here again... oh yes, i'm free! wow, that's great! erm... where were we again?

whatever happens, this means that as much as braxton's and wheeler's voices work marvellously well in unison (and they really do, there is no denying that - some superbly memorable ballads, in particular, sprang from the fountain of the master's mind in order to exploit the otherwordly beauty of the sound made by the two of them playing together), the band in general is straining at the leash, and wheeler is holding it back. he doesn't mean to, he just doesn't ultimately belong that far out, even though he has produced some superb playing along the way. but let's be serious about this, if anyone is even thinking of taking me to task here, just look at what happened the very same year: when his chance to lead came along, wheeler put out an album of bittersweet, yearning music which at once gave him a clear sense of what he really wanted to do, and i don't think he's ever really looked back. (in a recent-ish interview for radio 3, wheeler said that the only reason he stopped playing free is because people stopped asking him, but then one can see why, no?)

(somewhat) related to all this is the fact that braxton during this period had been prepared to try his hardest to make the albums saleable - i say braxton, possibly it was discussed with the producers - which means that small (negligible, as it turns out) concessions are being made to the marketplace. the more i hear 23b these days the more dated and unbraxtonesque it sounds to me... that's probably a little unfair, and has only arisen because i've heard it so many times; it cried out to be recorded in the studio, after all, but then again the leader's composing had already moved on a long way by the time it finally got committed to record in the studio, and here i can only see it as the nearest thing to a commercial opener that b. had in his locker. (of course, that beautiful ballad could so easily have caught on, if he'd just sold out and given it a title... but i'm glad he always chose principles over money.) by the time of five/ 1975, this policy has been extended even further with the choice of a standard to open the album. and of course there is more to come (some of which i am about to go and hear very shortly - adding this para in week two..!), but it's not going to take long for the collective penny to drop - this man is not gonna get rich playing music, or even composing it. he is simply too talented, too individual and too eccentric for the marketplace to tolerate. the good thing about that from posterity's point of view is that once this has been fully understood, the composer is free to do whatever he wants, as long as he can survive - it is so clearly a crucial period, this, and the more i think about it, the more obvious it becomes that wheeler had to go, and with him any last hope of making a good living out of selling jazz records. but the music had to go further, and wheeler's eventual replacement (after a few months in seclusion/on sideman duty for our subject) was a guy who could take it there, propel it, indeed.

[did b. never play comp. 23e with lewis? i know that the piece had been crystallised in the studio already after being worked up on the road, so it would not have needed any further outings but still - was he never tempted? did he fear that the two of them might crack open the earth itself, raise ayler from the grave?!]

* * *

23e is a good one to lead into the second subject, really - as good as any, because this magic spell of a piece (* v. comments) may have begun life as a simple idea, suitable to be dubbed a "short piece for creative ensemble", but it's gone waaaay past that by the time it gets captured for posterity... in what respects is this different from compositions which are not part of any such series? and if that's too hard, are there any similarities at least which can be observed common to all of the "book" pieces at this stage? and the answer is... probably not. that is, i reckon we could make some up, do that critic thing of planting a flag, even invent an "ism" to describe some of it if we're lucky, but it would be bullshit. 23m has more in common with "comp -2" or with some of the early numbers in three figures for that matter, than it does with 23d as far as i'm concerned. the only thing all the creative book pieces have in common is that they are all basically unpredictable, but this is true of all braxton's compositions, as far as i can see. (oh, and of course they are generically intended for ensemble, rather than for specified instrumentation... but none of this matters anyway, see below.)

chances are that the numbering, at any rate, isn't anything like as scientific as it looks. the master himself can never remember the opus numbers, and don't forget the pieces are not named after the numbers, they are simply numbered by the numbers and named by their diagrams. (and while we're at it - please do tell me that some critics are not still conflating the schematics with "scores" for the pieces..?). the fact that "composition 6" is actually a book, and so is 23 and 40 and 69 - and that there are other books such as the solo books, first and foremost, and that some books only contain three or even two pieces, is one more delightful layer of detail added in later, and it's very helpful, to be sure (all too late must our man have realised that the problem with refusing to use conventional titles is that no-one can then refer to your pieces without saying "you know, the one that goes..."!), but does it really matter what type of composition a given composition is, or what number it bears? not usually, by the look of it. and is that surprising? well - it sounds as if it might be, but then if you've really been paying attention, it won't seem surprising at all... we have seen already, during this recent period, that even at this stage, any piece can be subjected to any approach, adapted to any occasion. the possibilities really are endless... now, where do we find another brass player who really wants to explore some of those possibilities?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

live from centrispace

some of you will remember how it works round here - i try and maintain two different schedules, a "real" one and a slow-motion, time-delay version in which the intense braxtothon sessions are spaced out at (what i hope is) a more manageable rate.

so it comes about that the next post, a roundup which deals with (among other things) the end of wheeler's tenure in the working band, was written well over a week ago; and since then i've got sucked back into a mini-debate in my old haunt, as a result of which i've learned that wheeler's last three decades are not entirely "free"-free. no matter, it's all still relevant, basically... martin davidson's comment* to the effect that wheeler is basically a "changes" jazz player with forays into free improv, etc (and contrasting him with paul rutherford) is all the reassurance i needed... if i needed any :)

(* liners to frameworks by the spontaneous music ensemble. thanks again to ubu xxiii)

braxtothon '08: session 001 (take three)

(one more time for the world)

just when i thought i was all done with this album, serviceton read my first thoughts on fall 1974 and decided to offer me another rip. (this, and subsequent developments, are to be found in the comments on take one of this session.) does it sound perverse, when i say that i not only didn't rush to get the sounds into my ears, i refrained from even unpacking the files for several days? well, you have to understand that i thought i was finished with this one for the time being, and in the meantime i still had lots of writing to do - i didn't want to get distracted. but eventually i got to the stage where i had cleared enough space in my head for it... and i sat down to check it out.

initial impression: no, it still sounds subdued, it must be a quality of the actual production i'm hearing, or of - ? i am happy to remain blissfully vague about this sort of thing, you see (i think i regard all that as distractions away from the music - also, i have perfectionist tendencies of my own which i no longer wish to indulge except on a very small scale..!), but it basically answered my question: there is something in the (presentation of the) music itself which actually carries the quality of disappointment for me when i first encounter the sound. ok, i thought, we'll come back to that, let's check out side two first (side two, side twoooooooo... 'scuse me) - and this was a nice surprise, because the old rip of this album has a rather brusque opening to side two, and a very abrupt ending (as i've said before... indeed i've said a lot of this before, but in comments, please bear with me while i retell the tale) - and this new side two is complete, down to the last fraction of a second, a tiny difference which nevertheless is the sort of detail i would find to be worth fussing over. just to hear the very ending of 23a will be a blessing at this point, that beloved piece being a minor source of frustration hitherto, its final sounds snipped off...

so that's what i did, listened to side two. the sound is lovely actually - here there is no question of any subdued reactions, right from the off the clarinet's alarm call draws me magically into the soundscape. and i lose myself happily there for the next few minutes, but this wasn't a listening session as such, i took no notes and did not retain any new impressions on comp. 38a, though a few may have passed briefly through my consciousness... when it comes to the next piece, the old braxton sax quartet extravaganza, i find myself at times sucked forensically into the smallest examinations of the individual moments and reel back, thoroughly daunted by the implications of this: there is so much music in this one piece, for a writer it really is a black hole in that you could just fall in and never be able to climb out again. if that sounds like gross exaggeration, go and listen to comp. 37 for yourself: the level of complexity implied by the combination of these four separable voices, on different instruments, playing phrases which are both prescribed and spontaneously expressed, with no backing to force coherence or to distract the attention - one could pick any extract of a few seconds, and immediately begin writing about it. needless to say i am not going to attempt anything of the sort (sanity suicide!), but just the fact that this man's work bears this level of detail, supports inspection and examination down to the finest degree, is worth pointing out here. of course, art music is all about detail anyway, but still... with this composer's work i, at least, find yawning depths and endless vistas i most certainly do not find routinely in other music.

and so we're back at my old friend comp. 23a, my "sea-shanty on neptune", and for this one i simply approach the stereo and kneel patiently before it, getting as close as i can to the speakers, and open my ears. and this above all is the one which rewards me with a new understanding.

what i attempted to transcribe before was a summary of my previous impressions on the piece, rather than a fresh take on it - and for some reason hearing this "new" version today (which may or may not benefit from demonstrably improved sound quality, but which in any case comes to me with the quality of newness and is received the same way) brings into sharp relief the extent to which my psychedelic imaginings may have misled the reader as much as informed him, her: my description (in take one, again) could conjure up the idea of a brisk, lively theme perhaps, which would then be utterly confounded by the reality of this piece, which above all has the quality of an elegy. that's the first thing: it may not always have been fully clear in the composer's mind, even, since the piece was used as a set opener in 1973, but by the time it reaches this point (at which time it will be captured almost perfectly, as near as human art may reach, and then left behind), it has found its essential nature for sure. yes, it's a lament of sorts, but thoughtful rather than sad, reflective rather than longing, philosophical, realistic.

it's also clear to me, this time through, that it's not a question of a track split in half (as i more or less characterised it before) - a set piece which then turns on its head and becomes an outer journey - it is all one hybrid construction, which is to say a combination of the above two approaches to small group composition, a simple design extrapolated outwards in several directions, so that in all sorts of deeply satisfying respects it provides the culmination of the album, which itself is a very carefully contrived formal experiment, as well as a (mere!) wondrous treasure-house of music. although my previous listenings (especially with headphones) have shown me a marvellous moment of transition, where the theme ends and the leader begins a solo of sorts on contrabass clarinet (it is and isn't a solo, because it remains the essential focus of the second half even while the other voices all play a crucial part), this listening now reminds me that we were always out there in the deep space, cooper's ethereal cymbals even during the theme suggesting now that the piece does not begin in snug safety, but lost out in the fog, lamenting on our lot whilst knowing that that's the way it was meant to be...

wheeler skitters and scurries in the touch-and-go second half, where the danger is closest, and maybe it really was a danger after all, not an imagined one since a funeral drum starts up (3.24) amid the numerous and various happenings (again, there is probably no end to the detail one could unlock in this piece!)... between 3.58 and 4.30, arising organically out of the water and subsiding back into it, (a portion of) the theme is restated on arco bass and cbcl, while cooper's cymbals chop away in the water around us, so that the basic nature of the piece (as simple monophonic line) is recalled to us - but not in such a way as to remind us of the jazz standard's theme-solos-theme restrictions, since at this stage the piece has been exploded out don't forget, and thus even the restatement will be handled differently.

and indeed this, in turn, makes me revise once again my view of the design, of the album as a whole: it's not just straightforwardly a matter of side one does this, side two does that; the first side is indeed a sort of mini programme of creative jazz music, two set pieces separated by a link, and the second is indeed much more forward-and-outward-facing, and far more concerned with pure composition as opposed to anything as limited (and policeable!) as jazz... but the first side nonetheless contains an element of the second, yang within yin, the link-piece being a pure composition and decidedly removed from any of the jazz idioms (even if it does have cousins there)... and the second side, well: it begins with two utterly different, unmistakably similar outer explorations but it concludes with a cross-pollinated encapsulation of the whole album: 23a, of course, which is above all where braxton says to the listener (and to other writers) look, this is how limitless the possibilities are! here's a couple of things we could do with exercises in style, and look at how much variety we can create with that - and here's something totally different, a way in which we can just explore; and here is what happens when we combine the two, take as vehicle a set piece, but kit it out for a long-distance exploration instead of a parade lap round the block... the possibilities were indeed endless... and he did try to tell them, but... no-one was listening. well, evidently a few were listening, but we know our man had to endure long years in the wilderness, not knowing (terrifying this) whether anyone out there could hear it at all, before finally beginning to find us, a few at a time... luckily (i'm so grateful for this) he was able to find musicians to play with, and wonderful musicians, which must have been how he kept going in the face of such obstinate and overwhelming indifference.

anyway - i'm not quite done with all that, but i am for the time being (it's sort of continued with the next post). as regards this album - and i am finally finally getting ready to wrap that one up at last (till next time...) - when i go back to side one later, i decide now that it's essentially "braxton himself" which is the missing element at the beginning of the first cut, this (23b) being a great instrumental demonstration and a lot of fun, but not a particularly suitable vehicle for the leader since it really isn't where he's basically at. again... continued in the next post, the week one roundup... meantime, i love the ballad in particular but the choice of a set-piece to open the album now seems unfortunate to me. (and it didn't work anyway, i mean commercially.) it's him all right, but only a little of him and it's maybe, alas, just past its best by the time he has the chance to crystallise it... but in any case it sounds flat and dated to me, in a way that the side two material definitely doesn't. of course, as soon as the theme is out of the way and the leader's alto is holding forth, it's immediately fresh and new, but... no, much as i love this album (and i'm sure i always will), there is no way i could ever entertain the idea that this is the highpoint of b's career.

* * *


i am not gonna write any more about this album until further notice!!! except in the next post, and only because aspects of it are germane to the whole period generally.

thanks to - well, to all my readers actually, but specifically to ubu xxiii for the encouragement and, of course, to serviceton for his new rip. see comments for more details.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

braxtothon '08: session 001 (take two)


Your cut-out-and-keep guide to "the finest creative jazz recording of the twentieth century" (Norman Arsey-Cyst, voted Jazz Journo of the Year by the North London chattering classes)

* * *
- don't worry, i haven't gone totally mad... there is a point to all this nonsense..!

* * *

less than 48 hours after the actual listening session for this album, i found myself hearing it again, this time in company: at a friend's place for the evening, i had brought this with me on a whim, thinking he might like it - the friend in question has checked out the blog a few times and occasionally said things to the effect that one day he really must hear some of the music... he has no grounding in jazz at all, tends mainly to listen to older rock and acoustic folky stuff like roy harper; the music we have in common is basically hendrix and (especially) zappa. indeed his experience of jazz is, as far as i know, mainly confined to a few compilation cds i put together for him a couple of years ago: mostly quite mainstream stuff, nothing too advanced or outlandish. hence, having taken the album with me on this occasion, i found myself wondering whether it was actually going to get played.

still, standing in his garden just before dusk, listening to the various birds serenading the departing sun, i changed my mind and decided to play it after all. we were discussing our shared love of birdsong, and talking of blackbirds in particular; and that in turn made me think of dolphy, of course, but also of braxton... just as a blackbird's song will unravel over the course of minutes on end, never quite repeating itself, each individual phrase perhaps incomprehensible to most listeners yet perfect unto itself, it suddenly seemed to me that another key point about b's approach as a soloist had just struck me. like the blackbird, b. seeks above all to use language types which express his identity. the individual phrases, the components of the language he employs may, again, be hard to understand, and certainly they do not fall easily into the western ear in many cases - yet familiarity helps one appreciate their startling qualities: clear identity and vision, mischief and gravity, beauty and turbulence. it is not necessary to compare these phrases, these various strange sounds, to anything else in order to enjoy them for what they are.

looking back at what i've just written there, i'm unsure whether i've conveyed my point or not; but there is a more detailed analysis of braxton-the-soloist on the way soon enough. for the time being, it's enough to say that the one thought led to the other, and very naturally - and the album got played, and enjoyed, and this in turn (a free jazz album which a total novice can enjoy!) got me thinking hyperbolically for a little while: maybe fall 1974 really is the best this, the best that... except that i basically have little use for such judgements, and am trying to phase them out of my thinking altogether.

* * *

listening under these circumstances - with my friend's fresh ears, so to speak - enabled me to do one thing which was apparently beyond me, the previous day: to hear the exuberant, martial-yet-playful stop-time duo lines of comp. 23b as if for the first time, or if not that, at least hear them as they are rather than simply thinking "yeah, i know this one". once one is familiar with the record, it's so easy to take this invigorating theme for granted, especially if one has heard other versions of it as well - and that is pretty much what i did during the previous day's session. here, with my host visibly projecting his hearing forwards, in the direction of his very basic stereo setup (that and the aforementioned quiet, slightly subdued quality of the actual rip necessitated very close listening), i hear this delightful demonstration-piece not just as a performance but with due regard (at last) to the tightly-marshalled-one-minute, then loose-and-swinging-the-next episodic narrative that is braxton's showcase offering in the bebop idiom. [did he clear that terminology with max roach, i wonder? ;-) ] the peppering that the ear undergoes in those first few opening bars, in stop-time: on a par with any bop theme i can think of for sheer "wow factor".

just to straighten out any skewed expectations at this point, i'll say now that no, the evening did not turn into some sort of four-eared braxtothon session... there was no spontaneous soldering of minds leading us to experience the whole album together and as one... or anything like that. we didn't sit there in rapt silence, at least not all the way through; it wasn't ever likely to be that sort of deal, and for the sake of my companion's sanity (he is able already to focus in very clearly on a piece of music, but has little experience of music which is of anything like this density) we naturally found ourselves talking over some of it, always quickly being jerked back to the sounds as i'd find one landmark after another to bring to his notice. the opening theme seemed to please him, also polarised his attention so that as the alto solo began, he was giving it his full focus; he then winced in amazement at the very first examples of the master's trickery, and sat back heavily in his chair right away, clearly backing off from the flood of detail which threatened to overwhelm him at once. and that was more or less the way we jointly approached the whole album: parts of it were absorbed in careful silence, other moments slipped by as i explained things, or elicited reactions from him.

* * *

the fact that the album could be so well received, and by a listener totally inexperienced in this sort of music, is what suddenly got me carried away, as i mentioned above. maybe this really is the bext braxton album..? - for although it's divided into unequal halves, the second far denser and more experimental than the first, that means that overall, it has even more to offer the listener; and besides, unequal they may be, yet the two sides are perfectly balanced in themselves. furthermore, by providing outward-facing, open-ended compositions alongside simpler examples of pieces within certain styles, b. tells us more about his versatility and adaptability than would otherwise have been the case. how far would one have to go to find a better creative jazz album than this?

but that's a trap - and one into which i don't wish to fall. just as i don't think of myself as a critic, i try not to encourage in myself too many of the professional critic's various vanities... and chief among these is the constant desire to lay down markers of this sort, to say "this is the one you need, the best one, the essential one". that kind of sweeping statement seeks to do two things simultaneously, one declared and out in the open, the other decidedly sub rosa: the open aim is to assist the potential listener in choosing recordings which will be suitable; the hidden one, to attempt to link the critic's own name with that of the masterpiece. this album was dubbed the greatest by so-and-so. (the same can of course be true if a recording is declared worthless.) critics know, deep down, that what they do in writing about art is nowhere near of equivalent status to the art itself; rather than stomach this unpalatable truth, many of them successfully delude themselves into believing that their judgements are somehow just as worthwhile as the works they judge - perhaps even more so. i want no part of this. (*...)

even leaving aside these specific considerations (i.e. regarding professional criticism), i find increasingly that words like "better" and "worse" have no bearing on the way i feel about music - and as for "best", that seems to me to be clearly symptomatic of the hierarchical thinking which so easily afflicts collectors, which if unchecked leads ultimately to a state wherein no real pleasure can be derived from anything - except one's own opinions, naturally, and the voicing of them. i have no interest in assessing which is the "best" or "greatest" braxton recording. any of you who are waiting for the end of this mammoth undertaking, solely in order to see which albums come out "on top of the pile"... you can probably stop reading now, and save yourselves the inevitable frustration which would ensue, when no such list is forthcoming..!


* of course, there i am making a (sweeping) judgement..! but it's true, as i move away from this sort of hierarchical thinking at least in my intentions, it becomes less and less palatable to me even though i inevitably still repeat it to some extent... little by little... meantime i can still get crabby and difficult... hey, the whole braxtothon is a process, in case that hadn't already been made clear ;-)

in any case - this is STILL not the final word on the matter, as if it could be such a thing... serviceton's new rip got me thinking all over again and re-experiencing some of the music, also reshaping AGAIN my map of the basic design for the album... yes, that's right, take three follows...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

braxtothon '08: session 003

less than two months after the previous (short) stop, here we are back in the states and back in the studio, making use of the space (and adding some in the form of reverb). the next album is named by some in the same breath as new york, fall 1974 - but it doesn't generally enjoy the earlier album's "best of brax" status - despite the fact that this is far more straightforwardly a quartet album, and this quartet so beloved of critics and fans...

session 003: five pieces 1975
date: 1st july 1975 (duet); 2nd july (quartets)

restructures link

five pieces:

1. believe it or not, the album begins with a standard this time. unexpected? surprises me even now, whenever i look at the track listing... but it's as if our man was saying, ok, you require me to interpret the songbook at least a bit, then i will: look, i'll even open my album with it. or maybe he and dave holland just cut the track as a warmup, the day before the other two arrived, and found that it worked well enough to include on the album... it would be interesting to know, but this duet does work well, for sure, though it also seems fairly bizarre in the greater context of the album, there's no getting away from that.

microcosmically, it demonstrates at least two of the basic principles that b. likes to apply to the playing of tunes, as such: keep the harmony as open as possible, while never completely losing touch with the chord structure of the theme; return to those chords tangentially only, once in full flow. b's approach to a tune is to treat it like a second, separate trajectory to be implied, kept in sight, but parallel to his own course; just occasionally, he will veer out of his way slightly, brush shoulders with the tune for a moment, then move naturally away again. the piece he's chosen here, "you stepped out of a dream", has a natural marker, a target for the divergent runner in the second main chord (i.e. the one which governs the third bar) - this distinctive shift up in tonality is all that is needed to check back in with the theme (the same shift between those two chords was one which monk liked, too). and that's that: starting off reasonably easy on the western ear, staying (more or less) inside, b. and holland move farther out with each successive chorus, as the alto expresses itself more in terms of its own core vocabulary and less in terms of songs and harmony.

[this moving out - even on a standard - is essential to braxton, as if that needed to be said; but it possibly does need to be said, since it's still acceptable for mainstream jazz critics to style him as "basically out of parker" or words to that effect. yes, he's had to deal with parker but that's not what he's doing now, not what he's about - and though he can sing as beautifully and seductively as any crooning balladeer when he so chooses, mr braxton is always looking to break up the line at the same time as he preserves the spirit of it... he always looks to go out, and not just as far out as dolphy, even: farther out. way out! more thoughts on all this coming soon.]  {added 16/5/2015, since people seem to be checking this post lately... "all this" meant all this}

the journey outward is conducted pretty fast, and before you know it the traveller is back again, hanging beautifully onto a long note of holland's (3.50) to signal the end of the solo; holland plays alone for several choruses then, and he, too, is content as usual to "talk round" the tune without needing to state it directly; though he is apparently governed by the tune a lot more than was the leader, and rhythmically he stays very predictably on course. the alto, back again, is all charm and sweetness, and even feels a little playful - five high-pitched toots around 6.15 make up one lovely miniature. most importantly, though, the two players don't drag things out beyond necessity... this is not where the real music is at, on this session. it's merely an amuse-gueule, carefully contrived and beautifully presented, but all it can do is whet the listener's appetite.

the rest of the album comprises four pieces with diagrams, not titles... back to (serious) business.

[honestly, i am not being deliberately provocative here. rather, this is what i need to say - and when i remind myself that previous experience has taught me to be wary of broaching certain subjects, i end up considering this, but finding it outweighed by the internal imperative to say what needed to be said. i'm not secretly hoping to offend anyone, in other words. or if i am, it's a secret even from me ;-) ]

2. side one continues with comp. 23h, a "medium slow structure" which recalls several other creative ensemble pieces from the period: the recurring flute motif, a slightly mocking, bird-like phrase, is quite similar to the opening six-note phrase of 23c, except that this time it's five notes, and incorporates a wide interval jump; the theme itself, which intersperses pecking, staccato phrases (especially the main motif) with long, sustained tones, is yet another monophonic line, the muted brass and the bass joining the flute; even the crashing cymbals which wreak slow havoc in the background are reminiscent of some of the 6 series ballads... it is not too surprising that certain powerfully suggestive ideas keep cropping up in various different contexts during these years.

what came as totally unexpected to me - although it's foreshadowed in the opening moments - was the central section of the piece: in between the opening theme and the restatement, no-one plays but altschul, the theme yielding to leave a ringing, empty space which the drummer gradually fills with careful layers of sound. this is not a jazz drum solo, whatever else it is; but nor is this really a jazz composition. whether the percussion solo is specified in the score or not, i don't know, but it's immaterial: it sounds set up in such a way that something will happen between opening and closing, and what does happen sounds perfectly natural, once it's taken place. the piece does seem to have the quality of a riddle, somehow - that mocking five-note call: but already, just on this brief number, we are far beyond the simple delights of playing tunes. (it occurs to me right at the end that but for the standard's interrupting, this piece almost continues where fall '74 left off, the two individual renditions of 23a and 23h - if not necessarily the works themselves - containing quite similar soundscapes.)

3. ... and out of the window to your left, ladies and gentlemen, that's comp. 23g, which commemorates the birth of the pulse track, a concept which preoccupied the composer greatly, a decade after the original was crystallised...

yes, here it is, at this point just one more idea to throw into the mix: a "medium tempo line with accent shifts", what would come to be called sound attacks later on. the up-and-down, edgy theme - fired out in stop-time by the sax and trumpet - is followed by isolated, apparently non-rhythmic attacks from the bass and drums, configured within a space all of their own so that as the two pairs resume together, considerable tension (that word again) is created. one has the feeling it could explode at any moment... but it never quite does. no matter how many times i hear this piece (and i've heard it on a playlist, a lot more than i have the whole album), i can't get past the sense that it's a near miss. what i can't quite work out is whether the strained, uneasy ambience is deliberately sustained without any real release, or whether the piece simply doesn't come off.

braxton's solo rather suggests the former - and maybe it's a bit of both. firstly, before we even get to the solo there's another section of theme, coming where one isn't expected - we've heard it all once through, and the pause which follows leads one to expect some sort of release... no, back to the theme, more pressure building up inside - and it is released somewhat by the leader, but so gradually and under such tight control, it's almost painful. at first he does little except echo the theme, taking his time; little by little, very fast bursts are introduced, and used so sparingly they are extremely effective, but it really takes time for the solo to reach any sort of peak intensity, to open up all the valves and allow the pressure to escape. the bass and drums simply pile the pressure on, becoming more assertive and aggressive as the solo continues; but by the time braxton drops out and wheeler steps in, the rhythm section has calmed down again and much of the tension seems to seep away. wheeler's solo doesn't seem to do an awful lot - his trademark high squeal, a delightfully exuberant and unfettered sound in itself, crops up a few times too often here and usually when it's most expected. then again, he does use fast runs in his solo in a similar way to braxton, i.e. sparingly but quite effectively... i just can't make up my mind what's missing here, but something is.

this time we don't return straight to the theme; instead an opportunity arises for spontaneous interactions, but nothing really catches on - it's impossible now to hear braxton's (unanswered) "kisses" towards the end of this section and not think of how george lewis will respond in kind during the dortmund concert, later, and this somehow sums up the piece for me. nothing quite gets going, and this time the pause which precedes the restatement sounds horribly, for a second or two, as if it's only arisen because no-one's sure how to fill it.

and thus ends a rather uneven, strangely unsatisfying side one.

4. side two is dominated by a long and quite demanding piece, the first part of which is a magical transformation which one might entitle: the dimensional portal. yes, this is our friend comp. 23e back again - the piece in which we go from "slow" to "very fast" without the tempo of the written line ever changing: here in the studio, with precision engineering, the relentless buildup is absolutely mesmeric, and quite thrilling to witness. as the screw is turned and intensity increases, the image is burned into my mind's eye of a doorway, surrounded by stone and engraved on all surfaces with mysterious glyphs - and these words of power are spoken aloud, one at a time, intoned by the two lead voices as the viewer, rapt, is drawn slowly closer and closer, to see that beyond the doorway is blazing white light, crackling with so much energy that one's hair stands on end. with each intoned phrase, each portion of the litany, the gateway moves a little closer and the boundary between our plane and the one beyond weakens and bends. finally it snaps altogether, and we are suddenly through the gateway and into another realm, one whose strange denizens speak to us in tongues...

ok, so i was wrong about the role of the drummer being the crucial one here - it's actually the bass. when i go back and check, the shift from slow to very fast is quite simply effected by holland, and not in any subtle way: he's been bowing a "static" tone, he lays out, and when he returns he is scrabbling furiously - somehow, this obvious detail proved easy to forget, the overall effect being so hypnotic! but yes, this is the moment when the portal, gradually revealed to us inch by inch beforehand, begins to move closer and we realise that we are not just going to look at it, we're actually going through it.

indeed the litany itself - litany? to what, or whom? doesn't matter: the meditative state itself is what's important, and it looks simultaneously inwards and outwards - holds only so much tension: the fast section of the theme is so powerfully impressive, it becomes very easy to forget that until holland really turns up the heat, not much momentum is built up. the first phrases are intoned by the sopranino and trumpet (playing the same notes in different registers... just in case anyone isn't sure what "monophonic" means in this context, and can't be bothered to look it up!), with just skittering percussion for accompaniment; when the bass enters, it is as specified above, in the form of a continuous arco drone (holland's bow technique is so confident and this piece really shows his strengths) - and that does immediately create tension, which is then increased somewhat by the continuing incantation of the written line; but it dissipates then, as not only does the bass drop out, the horns do also - and when this pause is over and the three instruments return, at first the bass joins in with the chant, which adds weight but removes much of the tension. all this is prelude to the main event, though - the true intent does not become clear until around the 3-min mark. long, held tones are repeated (the two horns playing now the same note as the bass), and then the pace picks up and we begin to see what is about to take place. even thereafter, the buildup is quite gradual, something which the studio recording makes clear. when holland first begins to bow fast (3.10) he does so in such a way as not to attract much attention to himself, then ratchets up the intensity as the theme continues towards critical mass. altschul adds to this process, in turn - by 4.30 the tension seems almost unbearable, yet still the incantation continues. around 4.50, holland retains the very fast arco attack but starts to vary the note played, moving gradually up then dropping right down, and the final "gear shift" before we cross over is when he begins (from 5.01) to play pizzicato, pounding away at the low end while still holding the pace. the two chanting voices finish on a long high note, and in the tiny caesura which follows, we realise that we are now on the other side.

at first the voices seem to be gabbling in tongues of fire - a sound thrilling yet alien and incomprehensible (sopranino and trumpet together). however, over the next several minutes this frantic impression diminishes. wheeler drops out, and when he returns he slows the pace (as is becoming a habit for him). still, though, he plays beyond any conception of standardised tonality... it gradually begins to seem that as strange as the space beyond undoubtedly is to mortal senses, it is home to those who dwell there, and perhaps for this reason the outbursts become more measured and less frenetic as the piece continues: as the ear adjusts, random babblings begin to sound like speech. several different voices make themselves heard in this (very open) section, wheeler playing with and without mutes (maybe switching horns, i can't be sure), braxton on sopranino, flute and contrabass clarinet, the monster's eldritch coughings and sawings merely its way of expressing itself (though when close-mic'ed they have the power to startle and scare) - however unearthly these beings are, they appear to co-exist in peace in this realm, hence all their outlandish utterances sound natural in this context.

gradually, through shifts and changes too numerous almost to count, the piece works its way back to the beginning; voices alternate, combinations appear and disappear just as fast, momentum increases then slackens again. eventually a restatement of sorts is cued up, but this is more a reminder of the access code than a full run-through: the image of the inscribed, illumined portal hangs in the dark once more, but from which side are we viewing it? the voices separate, wind down towards silence.

5. after this long piece, the closer must necessarily be brief, and so it is that the studio version of comp. 40m, constructed over a simple bass vamp which would happily support extended improvisation, is much more succinct than the live one (again, from moers the previous year - later versions are also much longer). indeed, barely have we traversed the winding, snake-charming theme before the sound begins to fade and the album is over. still, much is crammed into three and a half minutes here: with the bass vamp kicking us off as usual, the horns set up the basic tonality, rather eastern-flavoured; and the leader seizes the moment, squeezes in a wonderful short alto solo, bristling with energy and with ideas, before the theme itself begins. and what a theme! the combination of the (nearly) static bass and the sly, sidewinding movements of the up-and-down written line creates an unresolved tension which the listener could carry away and worry over for hours, or days. one of many natural set-closers that b. penned around this period (see also 23a, 23c, 40b etc), this one was destined to end an album sooner or later, and although it is rather a shock that the fade comes so soon, the essence of the piece has been quite perfectly distilled already. on this occasion, it's as if the composer is content to give us glimpses of all the things which the piece might be, in performance, while capturing it only in miniature. microcosmically, this short rendition implies far longer explorations.

* * *

so, that's another famous station crossed off the itinerary... grading? i'm starting to get fed up with the whole idea of grading (not for the first time in my life...), but i suppose i must try and continue what i started: in that case, i guess it has to be CCC this time. much of side two in particular is magnificent, but i can't help feeling that taken as a whole, the album is uneven, not as well-balanced as some others. there are also times when it bespeaks possibilities rather than presenting us with actualities, and as fascinating as those possibilities are, this would seem to be cheating somewhat. 23g in particular seems to get more frustrating each time i hear it: i yearn for it to explode, for the tension to be released, and it never is. still, in that instance we're dealing with a concept which the composer himself did not fully grasp at the time, and which would provide food for a lot more thought a decade later; indeed the piece itself would be re-examined before then, but there's the catch: in the meantime, we're back to possibilities again. and although i've given 40m the benefit of the doubt, one could look at that differently and declare that in such a short version, the piece is merely tossed away. [would it have been similarly truncated in the digital era - ? yeah, but there's no point in asking cos it wasn't...]

the idea of grading/recommendation still seems rather redundant, as any braxton fan who hasn't heard this album will definitely want to do so - the studio version of 23e alone makes it well worth tracking down. actually this is putting it mildly, this piece contains some incredible music; even there, i find it impossible to judge how successful that performance is as a whole, it is so protracted and moves through so many mutations - and the later sections i found very hard to follow continuously (and almost impossible to describe! sorry, i tried my best). nevertheless the buildup is phenomenally exciting, and the moment of transition positively ecstatic: this piece, at any rate, cries out for the attention of the creative music listener. and of course the playing, as if it needed to be said at this stage, is pretty much superb throughout... i just don't think the album quite delivers on all its various promises.

* * *

ok, so - chronologically there will now be a gap: montreux is actually next, and the listening session (004) went ahead... but for several reasons i eventually decided it would make more sense to write it up at the same time as berlin, since the listener will be concerned above all with the album, in its entirety. (i took notes and they will be revisited, along with the music itself... in due course.) meantime, the forthcoming post detailing some of the conclusions from week one will have more to say on the later stages of wheeler's tenure, in general.

montreux was only july, but there's nothing later in the official discog for 1975 apart from sideman dates, none of which i have in their entirety and besides... etc.

in other words, next stop 1976, where the two brassmen neatly overlap before the torch is finally passed on to lewis.

but first... session 001 (take two)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

braxtothon '08: session 002

preamble: no, never mind about that for a change, i'll explain how all this worked out later, after i'm done! let's just get straight on with it:

session 002: comp. 23e* (news from the 70s, tr. 1)
date: 16th or 17th may 1975 (see discog link)

- this one-off track, and the festival in gröningen where it was played, are from 1975, not '74 as it says on the cd - let's just clear that up first. this piece, of course, has been encountered before, at moers festival the previous june (hence may '74 would have seemed like a reasonable bet) - and i found myself likening it to "nefertiti": in retrospect it now appears that i had identified the key to this composition (i.e. the role of the drummer) without really understanding the nature of the piece itself. as a result of this (miniature) session today, and the one following next, i come to a much more colourful understanding! described simply (but enigmatically) as "slow to very fast pulse line", comp. 23e is dedicated to albert ayler... a clue there, which gets me thinking as i hear the piece this morning, the first of two versions to be examined within a short space of time, as it turns out.

i'm reminded early on to be grateful for the terrible sound quality, since the extra work i have had to do through my ears is now being amply rewarded in terms of the clarity with which i can hear the development of the music; the drum track in particular is almost spectral at times, one hears the attacks then wonders if they were just imagined, but the point is that if one is listening intently, one hears. [*]

so - another monophonic line, then? it sounds like it - b. was into his monophonic lines around this time, partly no doubt because his various horns worked well in conjunction with wheeler's various muted or unmuted trumpets (cornets, fluegelhorns... they're all trumpets to me!)... but in this case the two conjoined voices are set against a bass drone right away, creating instant unease - the two voices, on the other hand, know how to use that unease. (b. has been working with wheeler in this way for more than four years, by this point - rather amazing, but true. the "two voices threatened" ballad archetype was explored quite thoroughly in previous recordings; at this stage the menace is (in the process of) being harnessed rather than withstood.) the intensity from the kit builds steadily, by slow degrees, so that without the tempo seeming to increase at all (the two voices still intone at a stately, measured pace), a fire is building down below - three repeated notes mark a new phase which sees a sudden increase in intensity, holland leading the way here, turning up the heat: by 4 mins, as another section of the theme commences, the rhythm section is fizzing with energy, so that the tension is really being cranked up as the slow and measured phrases are spelled out. it occurs to me sometime around now that for once there is a clear and simple connection between the piece and its dedicatee: this work relates an apparent paradox in matters spiritual, that inward reflection, peace and stillness can lead to great transports of ecstasy, yin becoming yang. who better to have in mind for this than ayler, the gatekeeper?

the state of ecstasy is reached somewhere between 4 and 5 minutes in, the brass taking the first solo round about then, by which point we are totally out there. as usual, wheeler takes his time getting started, and receives superb support from holland - but not for the first (or last) time this week, i find myself wondering if wheeler isn't short of ideas in these situations: though he never sounds less than comfortable in a free and open space, it doesn't necessarily inspire him very much. he finishes up pretty quickly, possibly aware of the momentum he's in danger of wasting; happily, when the leader takes over on sopranino, the difference could scarcely be more emphatic. braxton, as usual, is just bursting with ideas and the mesmerising buildup of the piece is clearly still an inspiration to him (even though he ceded the first solo for a change). as is his wont, he dips in and out of the theme briefly, to establish a launchpad from which to take off again - the flights always last far longer than the bounces! for several minutes he runs rings round the listener (an extraordinary bending attack at 6.55 was a highlight this time, according to my notes), wrapping up fairly suddenly around 9.35.

a "false start" from holland then gives way to an altschul solo - he toys with texture, all the while sketching out just the skeleton of the rhythm, so that 11 mins on the clock finds us suspended, between possibilities - the band could yet go right back into full-tilt mayhem, or they could move towards something entirely different... which is where we actually end up. what happens next, as is usually the case with these excerpts from live sets, is rather unclear: at some point before the recording ends, we have left 23e behind altogether and entered a new territory. for a while, regrouping after the drum solo, the band seem to be wading slowly through one of those murky, capricious transitional streams; holland twangs his bass strings like a schoolboy with a ruler (sounds pretty good actually!) and the other three grope towards each other, sounding for all the world as if they're already looking for the next cue - but at 12.50 another lovely euphony is picked up seemingly out of nowhere, the three singing voices finding each other at once (especially the two horns, who fit each other so well in this moments that it's easy to understand why they worked together for so long). that, though, really is the end of the piece as a slow, beautifully dissonant holland solo indicates the approach to the next territory: when the leader re-enters it's on contrabass clarinet, quickly faded out. (and that really gives the game away, since this was in fact the one piece on which braxton stuck to the higher-pitched horns, with which a typographical error on the cd credits him on all three quartet selections: clarinet, sopranino sax and piccolo.)

always a tricky question: how to return from outer space? gradually, so that we scarcely realise we're back... but the open-ended nature of the piece, especially played en suite like this, leaves me with all sorts of questions which prompt me to hunt for other versions of the piece... and at that point i remember something else i keep forgetting, namely that the studio version of 23e is up next, in any case.

[*also - just occurred to me to point this out before publishing! - i own the audio cd of this album, i was not listening to a compression... definitely worth pointing this out]