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]

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