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)


zenkojiman said...

Hi Cent.

No; I believe you. But perhaps you need to have a read of Henry Smith's review of Solo Willisau on All About Jazz. Here, and very recently, Braxton does it again, confound the man. That is, he brings a standard (by Jerome Kern) into a set of 'serious' compositions. There is more than one way of writing about Braxton, and this guy (maybe American?) does a good job.

Many 'free' musicians have a deep respect and love of standards. In my view, Lol Coxhill would be one such.

I wonder if you have got the new set of piano compositions (1968-2000), performed by Genevieve Foccroulle?

Take care, Zoot

centrifuge said...

he lurks, he pounces... hi z! thanks for believing me, anyway.

i think ALL b's solo concerts include standards - this has been the case for years and years now (odd exceptions such as comp. 113). we know that he still has use for the old song forms and can still find inspiration in them at times. in the recitals he seems to be saying "this is just another language type, like the ones i have been offering". likewise all the recitals include some quiet and reflective parts, some great violence, and usually a great variety of different approaches all squeezed into one family package :)

yes, lol coxhill is indeed a free player with a love for standards. two more who spring to mind, misha mengelberg and paul smoker, were utilised by braxton for the charlie parker project. and i'm sure there are loads more (though evan parker is possibly not one of them). it's just that i am far more interested in the maestro's compositions than i am in hearing more tunes..! [this is just a fundamental difference between us, evidently. at this point i could live without ever hearing another standard, whereas i can't imagine life now without braxton's music.]

on the other hand, i struggle to make much sense of piano music at the best of times, so the new box set was not exactly top of my list ;-) otherwise, leo were offering what sounded like a very good deal. i would be interested to hear some of it, indeed i'm sure one day i will want to hear the whole thing, it can wait though...

glads to see you're still around, anyway! i hope you enjoy some of it, despite my lining up in the opposing camp ;-)

Challenger said...

In relation just to the piano music then. I bought it sharpish, because it's a limited edition of only 500, and was a really good deal. I haven't had time to listen to all of it yet. But in my time I've listened to a lot of solo piano music by people like Nono, Webern and Schoenberg, as well as my usual suspects. Braxton's stuff is up there (to my unqualified ears). However, I am finding the recent Composition 171 extremely difficult. Here the pianist has to recite reams and reams of throwaway stuff, as well as playing demanding music. The piano music is good, and Foccroulle really gives the text her best shot. I just don't know what he's trying to achieve with the text. And 171 fills 2 of the CDs. Hmm.

The set is beautifully presented, with interesting commentary from both composer and pianist.

zenkojiman said...

Cent. The above comment is only from me, but my son was signed in.

centrifuge said...

z, your son's blogs look rather entertaining :)

hmmm... "throwaway"..?

who knows what he's doing, really... i doubt that anyone understands *all* the aspects of b's work except him - and maybe he himself would not claim to understand all of it - ! i do know that he really likes piano music, indeed seems to pine for it when he goes through periods with no-one to play it. and of course eventually he began playing himself... ahhhh goddammit i am going to have to consider buying the damn thing while it's available i suppose... it's a ridiculous extravagance and probably won't be properly appreciated though... rmrmrmrmrmphh.

my attempts to write today are not working out anyway... gonna go and listen to some music :)

zenkojiman said...

You are right: 'throwaway' was perhaps an injudicious word, Cent. It would take too long to explain what I mean, and if piano music is not your bag, then that is fair enough anyway. This stuff remains extremely interesting without it.

ubu xxiii said...

A belated remark or 2 on '5 pieces 1975'. I think the 2 short pieces sound so frustrating because they are so short, no time to stretch out, time strictures of the LP etc.
This album was true to type of a 'latest release' by a working band, more or less. Similar line-up, numbers fans might well hear live.
A detailed comparison of the 23E on 'News from the 70s' with the one on this album would be worth doing, but too bad, I don't really have time at present. To simplify grossly I think the studio version is less rushed & achieves more. Braxton had a wider choice of instruments in the studio, inclduding the 'monstrosity.' Also worth mentioning is the wonderful use of what trombonist Dave Baker called stereophrenics in the theme i.e. different instruments playing different TIME (pulse, tempo, metre whatever) something that would engross B more in years to come. Yours in haste UBU

centrifuge said...

ubu - well, as i said in the article, i actually find comp. 23g the most frustrating piece on the album to listen to (and certainly not for reasons of length), although 40m probably runs it close simply because it IS so short.

a really detailed comparison of the various renditions of comp. 23e would need to take into account the moers version too i think - but in any case the studio version really is pretty definitive, i reckon he got it all down on that one, everything he had in mind for the piece. (if you find the time, go for it! i'd be interested to read it... i am unlikely to take that one on myself, simply because the piece is too long and goes through too many shifts... i have my sanity to think of!)

thanks for your thoughts anyway :)

Frédito said...

Hi Cent'
I just took the 23e portal and enjoyed it extremely.
A bientôt

centrifuge said...

salut fredito,

very glad to hear you enjoyed the trip {{{@@@}}}

this studio version of the piece is a pretty amazing performance, i think... now that i've finally finished - for now! - writing about the holland/altschul era of the band, you will know that i consider this track to be a particular highpoint of the period; and now you can probably appreciate what i mean by that :)

very glad to get your last mails also, will try to be a lot more punctual about replying this time {cough}

a+, c x

Frédito said...

What a treat to witness the dissapearance of the monster under the trumpet's attack (around the 12th minute)
I'm waiting for your e mail ;)

centrifuge said...

f, this is why i'm always trying to encourage people to listen more carefully - everyone notices something different! as obsessive as i sometimes am about this stuff, there is no way i could hear every single event in these recordings... nor would i ever attempt to do that...

- i am halfway through a reply to you btw :) a bientot, c x

Frédito said...

Yes Cent', many events. Fantastic
A bientôt