Saturday, April 19, 2008

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.


centrifuge said...

serviceton's new rip:

small stylus fault in the coda of 23b, but **complete side two** - regardless of (any discussion of) sound quality issues, fans of the album who only have mcclintic sphere's old rip will want this new one, for sure.

meantime the old rip is no longer up at r-share, i see, so this is currently the only one in circulation that i am aware of. don't forget that a box set is due out in the autumn with ALL the aristas included... and i presume it will be michael cuscuna himself overseeing it (?)

serviceton said...

back on the "08 Session 001 (take one)" comments, I wrote a dazzling, urbane, witty, wide-ranging, impartial, compassionate, arousing, zany, lovable, carbon-neutral comment (which had a new link in it).

Blogger ate it.

One of the above sentences is definitely true. (The one that goes "Blogger ate it".)

At this point, this is going over old ground, and on the reasonably dull topic of 'recorded sound'.

Just quickly then - centrifuge, that "small stylus fault" is me knocking a bottle of beer over or perhaps falling comatose to the floor and disturbing the balance-weight. Could be that I had absentmindedly challenged a houseguest to a wrestling match at the time of my 'great new rip' (in my wooden wooden house)....

The LP record (of Fall 1974) DOES sound kind of "carboardish" - always (like you), I notice it on the opening track. Ears then adjust I think. (I'm never aware of the 'boxiness' by the end of Side1).

But the horrendous BUMP in Side1, Cut1 (23b) [of my rip] cannot go unaddressed.
So here's the "re-do" of 23B.

Have pushed the levels up to as close to digital clip as i dare: - I think it may sound a lot better - there's no fault in the tracking and it has more presence I think

No need for any further comment of course.

Just FWIW you know.

PS - Yes, I think Cuscuna (after taking several deep breaths and consulting a therapist) will be doing the arista / mosaic set...

centrifuge said...

hey serviceton... wow! i'm impressed. that's probably the most enjoyment i've had out of that piece since the very first time i heard it :)) in a direct comparison with your previous rip, the new version is very noticeably clearer and brighter, less "subdued" (as i constantly found it before). now be honest... how much time did you put into that? (yeah, i'm a fine one to ask that question...)

the odd thing about this listening was that my renewed focus and interest enabled me also to pick up starkly loads of little fluffs and glosses i normally hear peripherally and willingly overlook - and this time, it wasn't just cooper's solo which made me miss altschul a bit, simply because he and holland are so good together by this point... (still, cooper has his moments here even so, his contribution to 23a is as vital as anyone's.)

the individual nature of the vinyl listening experience in particular is highlighted by the curious fact that the new version of 23b runs 8.54, as opposed to 8.57 in the previous one - did it skip *back*? i didn't think so but maybe it did!

anyway thanks for your comment, which made me laugh as well as containing that nice present... i do hope people read the comments - but of course the music will be available ere long... that is a major piece of work m.c. is undertaking to be sure..! makes one break out in a sweat just thinking about it.

serviceton said...

very glad you got something out of it - makes it worthwhile!
How much time? Not long, really.
How the hell could it be *shorter* though ? ! ?
Jumping backwards, a 'stitch in time'......

centrifuge said...

it gets a bit weirder than that, actually, because the running times track by track for the album were SHORTER on your rip compared to the old one - EXCEPT the first cut which was several secs longer..! it's obviously to do with that slip-up, but exactly how... who knows :) i had that section under the microscope in audacity too, trying to fix it and i didn't notice any repetition... anyway, that's enough detective work on this..!