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?


centrifuge said...

only some days after writing this did i realise that i have a "cover" of 23e... oxfordshire-based band the locals, led by pianist pat thomas and the superb clarinettist alex ward, played it at nickelsdorf in 2006 as part of an all-braxton set (i understand the band plays only braxton... what a wonderful idea!). two numbers were broadcast on radio 3 last year, as part of jazz on 3's roundup of that festival. some of us discussed these performances at the time on the r3 bored, and the general agreement was that although the idea was great, it was disappointing to find that much of the music had just the two leaders actually "playing" on it while the other three rode a sterile groove (only readily understandable if it were *ironic*, but that would still be pretty lame imo). anyway, i recorded the show and went back to it quite recently, but apparently not in the last three or four weeks, because today i looked again and was startled to see 23e listed there. evidently last time i looked, it was before all those listens (to the various official versions of the piece) and all those words spilled over it -!

- and what did they do with it? i didn't remember much happening in it, only that there was more from the guitarist this time but to no great effect... and sure enough... altschul's boiling drums are replaced by the WEAKEST parodic dance-band swing, and the bass is only too happy to take cover by joining in - thomas, ward and guitarist evan thomas (the other two can remain tactfully unnamed, i think) wind their way round and do some potentially quite interesting things (well - the guitar doesn't really go anywhere) BUT one would scarcely know it was the same piece, they seem to have no idea what it represents. ok, fine, redo it as something else - IF that is gonna show a new side to it or open something else up. here, what was the point, really? the same could be said about the other number broadcast, comp. 115 - originally in variable tempo, here they see what happens if, er, they set the theme back into constant tempo instead - against a sort of "chameleon" bass riff and then some seventies-porn guitar... ward eventually makes it clear with his own treatment of the theme that he knows what the piece was about, but the three backing players - the less said the better, indeed it's all so distractingly facile that the exultant dual soloing of the two "real" players is distressingly easy to miss. it's great to think that a project like this exists, but i would hope that thomas and ward are able to find more suitable collaborators in the future - that's assuming that they are "making do" for the time being; if this is really what they wanted to do with the idea, i find that bewildering, even rather depressing.

Lucky said...

very interesting ideas, centrifuge. i haven't heard the entire output of braxton with the holland/altschul rhythm section, just circle, town hall, conference, this one and dortmund 76. i love this pairing - but i also favor the "easier" quartet records over others. :)

your comparison of holland and bill evans is unfair, i think. evans didn't came only out of miles band, he made his debut before he joined miles, played with george russell and others. until 62 he played with many black hardboppers, but then things were changing - trane and ornette were on the scene, right? later on evans had eddie gomez in his band (born in puerto rico - although raised in new york), and jack dejohnette, too. questions about race in music are often queer, in my opinion - and i doubt that many "black" players would've played bill evans' kind of music in the 60s: it was time either for riot or for retro. (my opinions, of course)

[just seen your comment above - no reply to it, it's a comment about your post]

so - you already have a publisher? ;)

centrifuge said...

hi lucky... good to see you here! no, not got a publisher lined up yet ;-)

well, it was miles said that, not me - but of course i borrowed it, so i guess i gotta try and stand by it... white (jazz) musicians do tend to stick together, i think. OBVIOUSLY that is a GROSS generalisation, but the word "tend" pretty much covers that. bill evans was a very shy and private man who would only have felt comfortable with relatively few people, i would guess - so that as his fame grew and his music became more purely personal, he was likely to keep to those he knew he could understand - this is not a colour issue, as is indeed shown by his working with eddie gomez and jack de j, though it's very possibly a cultural one, notwithstanding in both cases it's american culture(s) we're talking about.

miles' comment comes in his autobiog (essential reading if you haven't). and even when i read it, i knew it was totally hypocritical of him to say that - i had already read ian carr's biog of miles, so i knew the anecdotes about his mind-fucking poor evans when they worked together, putting him on about the "white" thing when the entire band knew he was kidding EXCEPT evans who thought he was serious - ok, the "fuck the band" story probably won't have scarred him for life, but the occasions when miles is said to have told him (again, "kidding") - "man, shut up, we don't need no WHITE opinions" - hardly the most encouraging or nurturing bandleader in history, by the sound of that... so it's not too surprising that evans then set up a band with two white cats, although even miles admits that he couldn't have found two better players than scott and paul.

- but really i was just leading up to the point about dave holland - for what it's worth, and i don't know how much that is, holland is statistically quite a freak in being a white bandleader who seems reluctant to hire more than one other white player at any one time (for the quintet at least). it is so rare that it's worth mentioning, i think - as is the trombone thing ;-) although of course the trombone is far more welcome in free jazz/improv than it ever was in much modern jazz, as such.

and finally

holland + altschul = fantastic free jazz r-section for sure :-D

Lucky said...

centrifuge - i should read your writing a bit more accurate:

"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..."

MILES GENERALISATIONS, there you said it, of course. Wasn't Miles famous for putting exceptional musicians down? Dolphy very famously? And I almost want to beg that if he ever said something about Braxton, it sure had some four-letter words in it ;)

I think I read his autobiography years ago (lent it from the local library). Don't get me wrong about Miles though - I think he was one of the cornerstones of "Jazz" history, back from bebop with Charles Parker until his electric phase in the 70s. I don't like what he did in his later career - but I'm no genius like The Prince, what do I know?!? :)

Back to Braxton - his comment here on this blog is still in my mind; that's really something you can be proud of, Centrifuge - don't you think? What a letter!

centrifuge said...

heh heh... as far as i know miles never publicly expressed an opinion on mr braxton :)

- but yes, he was of course famously rude about dolphy, and on more than one occasion... let's face it, the man was not exactly slow to offer his opinion..! but, y'know, that autobiog of his is massively entertaining and really interesting. (no, i don't like that last period of his work either, and whichever way you look at it, it remains the only period in which many of his collaborators DIDN'T go on to be major movers and shakers.)

and yes, of course i *am* proud of it :)) but in a good way, it helps keep me serious and honest about my work.

Lucky said...

nice to hear - about miles AND your 'proudness'! 8)

i've the same feeling about the collaborateurs in mr. braxton's work. he had played with some of the best in improvised music - but nowadays i have the feeling he's trying to stay in touch with the youngsters (yes again, w.e.!). but a man has to do what a man has to do - and some of the youngsters may be our future geniuses, like braxton was it in the 70s/80s --- and maybe is it still! (it's strange how it affects me in writing, when i think of it that braxton might actually READ this... - probably he doesn't).

your argument about your seriousness and honesty is maybe the best blueprint to critize oneself in writing about others - what, if the subject is actually reading the thing! does it still have some new opinions...? some value at the end...? but you just began - some writers are sort of pregnant with a book for several years before they finish it...

all the best, centothon!

centrifuge said...


i just want to make it clear (in case there's any doubt) that in my previous comment, i was talking about the last period of miles davis, NOT anthony braxton - ! i am *not* one of those who think that b's work has gone downhill over the years... as regards the students - well of course we don't know yet what may become of them, but in any case not all of b's recent projects are confined to working with his students.

and just in case that last bit makes it sound as if i don't approve of b's working with his students or regard these meetings as inferior - that's not what i meant either!! having been in the audience for the 2004 show at the RFH in london (routinely described by journos as being braxton plus four of his students, although chris dahlgren had already led his own dates by that time and THB was well on his way), i have no problem with that sort of arrangement..!

Lucky said...

w.e.=wolf eyes

i really haven't seen any of those groups live, just heard them. it was MY opinion about braxton, of course - taking your opinion about the late miles davis and try to make my statement about "late" braxton. i haven't heard enough to make any statement, to be true - but still i do. there's a german proverb - "the farmer doesn't eat what he doesn't know".

centrifuge said...

well, far be it from me to argue with any german farmers ;-)

ah yes, wolf eyes, of course...
and yes, thanks for clarifying that, i figured you probably hadn't misunderstood me but i felt compelled to spell it out just in case! pre-emptive, lest anyone else mistake my intentions...

Djll said...

btw Gino Robair's Rastascan label has just released a DVD (!) of something like six-point-five hours of Ghost Trance Music played by a younger crew, but don't count these "kids" out because they're not stars. (Gino himself is 45 and first recorded with Braxton in 1987.) Taylor Ho Bynum, Greg Kelley, John Shiurba, Scott Rosenberg, Dan Plonsey, Gino Robair, Jay Rozen, Kyle Bruckmann, Liz Allbee, Justin Yang, ma++ Ingalls, and Sara Schoenbeck are all mo-fo's on their instruments and many have already made their mark(s). Just not so much in jazz, where, let's face it, the action these days is not.

Younger musicians are on the whole "easier to manage" and bring a less-invested ego to the business. But Braxton's more interested in the kind of collaboratory mind(s) these people bring to his music. His music is not about "the big solo" anymore, so he doesn't need big fancy jazz soloists -- although Bynum for one can bring that game too (it didn't fit so well at the band's San Francisco concert). It's about collective creation, towards a universalist kind of model for society. "Jazz" and its often-petty, insular cockfights (not pointing fingers at anybody here) occupies but a tiny corner in Braxton's cosmology.

Lucky said...

Tom, you're absolutely right - about the younger 'kids' and about the 'jazz' thing. I've seen Wayne Horvitz, Sara Schoenbeck and Gino Robair, along with locals from Vancouver Paul Plimley, Peggy Lee, Travis Baker, Jim Black and Masa Anzai at the Time Flies Festival in 2001. Especially Schoenbeck, Plimley and Robeir made a deep impression on me. The Vancouver Jazz Scene may be small, but to see they're taking the torch from Braxton is great.

I think I really should listen to some 'Ghost Trance' music now - haven't heard ANYTHING up to now... ;)

djll said...


If you want GTM I would recommend the newer interpretations such as the 2005 twelvetet set posted at inconstansol or the ones on Rastascan (there's a 2000 4-CD set, with many of the same players as on the DVD, which is from 2003). There's less of the slavish score-following in these versions, which can get a bit too morse-code "trancelike" -- and not in an interesting way.

fwiw, Braxton says the name Ghost Trance Music applies to the writing of the music. He tries to get in a trance state when jotting down dots, and there is a process of forgetting what's come before as well. The resulting style of it is not totally my cup of tea -- you could characterize it, crudely, as "Webern meets Reich" -- but it's probably best not to analyze from that kind of perspective and just take it on its own terms. Ghost Trance is more significant for what it brings out of the players, not for the notes on the page. Braxton's fond of telling his players, "Let's kick it around a bit and have some fun!"

btw Thanks centrifuge for posting these. Side A of this album is a stone classic. And, yeah, it's classic "jazz."

Sam said...

Nothing about the current posts in this comment, because I'm behind, behind, behind!! I'm working my way through the posts and listening along the way, not always as intent or as focused as you, but trying to give at least 1 thorough listen for every track you address. I'm up to the first pass through "New York Fall 1974" and, as with all the stuff you've written so far, it's amazing how often I agree with your general take on this music. The occasional lapses and lags on side 1, the brilliant signpost to the future that is side 2, etc.--spot-on. I'm just so way behind! Therefore I don't have time to comment as much as I'd like. Would have something to say on your tracklists, which I love, but I was waiting until I put together CDs with those tracks, but that hasn't happened yet and probably won't for a few months, and so...there you go. Thanks for keeping this up!! This is a great way to work through Braxton's music.

Lucky said...

thanks for the recommendations, djill! the one at inconstant somehow slipped out of my focus... ;) (poooh - 6 rs-files will take me (as a non-prem) quite some time to dl... hints like this are goldmine! cheers!!

centrifuge said...

lucky, i'll email you with some more detailed suggestions if you're curious about where to start with gtm...

centrifuge said...

tom, thanks very much for your contributions here: the heads-up about the dvd (sounds great!), the inside glimpses into the processes and theories involved in gtm, the recommendations, and your thoughts generally... bearing in mind that you are yourself a creative/experimental musician, i find it a little surprising that you single out side one over side two (i presume it's fall '74 you're talking about), but there we are - just goes to show how that beloved album is (almost!) all things to all listeners. clearly it *is* some sort of high-point in b's discog... i'm still not getting into the whole "best" business though ;-)

centrifuge said...

sam, thanks very much for your thoughts and for the continued encouragement. i'm glad to hear you're still enjoying it! i'm trying not to post too fast, but there is more on the way within the next week... 1976, here we come :)

btw - those playlists may present a slight problem for you (depending on the software you use) if you're going to try and reproduce them/burn them to cd. vols 1 & 3 are slightly over 80 mins - at the time i was doing them, i decided against choppping and changing as this was just too much hassle..! i myself was NOT planning to burn them you see, just listen to them on my mp3 player... and to be honest i wasn't really expecting anyone else to share my enthusiasm ;-) in the case of vol 3, the extra time could be cut down by editing the applause at the end of the solo piece (comp 26b) - but in order to get vol 1 under 80 mins, one might have to swap a track with vol 2 (which is about 75 mins)... sorry!

ubu xxiii said...

About Braxton's young colleagues- some CDs are available & I think you'll find remarkable diversity in them; these people are not 'acolytes' at all. BBC radio 3 broadcast a duo from the Vision festival by Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone & its folk-like themes had bits of improvisation attached to them, a bit awkwardly I thought, but different. I've heard some 'youtube' clips of Nicole Mitchell, but the sound was shite & the music didn't impress me much either- maybe untypical.
On the Iridium DVD you can SEE as well as hear the sense of fun & enthusiasm they bring to this music, far from easy to play.
About Miles, he's on record as saying 'Lee Konitz- white? I wouldn't care if he was green with red breath as long as he could play'.

centrifuge said...

"On the Iridium DVD you can SEE as well as hear the sense of fun & enthusiasm they bring to this music"

yes, this being in stark contrast to what a few older listeners still insist is the case (about music which they themselves no longer listen to... ) - time and again we encounter this sort of reaction from those who play with mr b. still not got the box myself, looking forward to finally rectifying that soonish...

we know miles was no unthinking racist, but we also know he had a major problem with whites (and had many good reasons for that, but still) - so whilst the fact that he hired evans in the first place (in the face of much hostility from black musos) speaks for his open-mindedness, or at least for his placing the music above all other considerations... we do also know that things weren't always smooth... but this was a complex character, made more complex over the years by heavy indulgence in all sorts of stuff... no aspect of his behaviour is likely to have been one-sided or straightforward.