NEW YORK, FALL 1974
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)
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- don't worry, i haven't gone totally mad... there is a point to all this nonsense..!
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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.
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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.
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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...