Saturday, May 31, 2008

the wonderful world of tonal distortion (pt 2)


etc etc

i could go on all night obviously, that's one thing (lists) to which blogging is inherently suited, and this is the thing: a "semantician" would insist that those utterances are all essentially the same, and not fit for human hearing except by and for imbeciles, etc... at best "adolescent", grating and harsh sounds are at worst so deeply disturbing to uptight, entrenched intellectuals that they can only react with a total ban on the experience. naturally it would not do to say "i cannot bear this experience", so instead one formulates it through the filtering systems one has learned in despising oneself and all others, as most of us learned to do (as western children); it emerges as "this experience is absolutely not worth having, not even worth considering, it is fit only for derision" - and it is impressed very strongly on the receiver that disagreement would mean being considered an idiot too.

anyway... this wasn't going to be a fuckin speech/lecture, what am i playing at... well, that's what came out tonight (yes, this and the preceding post are in "real time")

but i have been thinking again about the whole subject of tonal/timbral distortion - which as regulars will know is a touchstone of mine - over the last few days... not surprising given the previous post.

and i wanted to cut the words, and give you all some names instead... the following are the reasons i now find it very hard to listen to "clean" reed tone for any great length of time... i'm hooked on the reverse...




and that's definitive {{koff}}

they really aren't in any order, but for obvious reasons i'm going to start here:

anthony braxton
roscoe mitchell
peter brötzmann
sam rivers
paul flaherty
arrington de dionyso
frank lowe
albert ayler
marion brown
john coltrane
henry threadgill
charles tyler
dudu pukwana
ornette coleman
arthur blythe
eric dolphy
john butcher
arthur doyle
glenn spearman
frank wright
willem breuker
tim berne
julius hemphill
marshall allen
evan parker
john zorn
rahsaan roland kirk
charles gayle
mike osborne
ivo perelman
sonny simmons
archie shepp
luther thomas
sabir mateen
joe mcphee
john carter
ab baars
jimmy lyons
david s. ware
john tchicai
michael moore
kaoru abe
(early) david murray
(on form) oliver lake
the braxton students, as yet largely indistinguishable to my ear
fred anderson
daniel carter
rudi mahall
louis sclavis
michel pilz
mats gustafsson
steve lacy
joe harriott
mars williams
joseph jarman
douglas ewart
thomas borgmann
mark whitecage
lol coxhill
hal russell
jack wright
briggan krauss
byard lancaster
juhani aaltonen
rob brown
marco eneidi
jemeel moondoc
vinny golia
pharoah sanders
sean bergin


just dig the names

and tell me, if you can,

what's missing, in terms of meaningful human experience? not a lot, i don't think... but in any case, those names, and others, and that's not even mentioning the trombonists, drummers, bassists, trumpeters, pianists etc etc who hang out with these guys - i don't feel i'm missing out on anything much while i'm happily lost out here, absorbed in it; what do all these voices have in common? they all like toying with tone, timbre, attack - splitting it, bending it, fucking with it, something for which a reed is especially suited, being endlessly versatile. sometimes it's purely experimental and sometimes it's pure catharsis; on most occasions it's a mixture of the two. but here's the kicker: the gradations of that mixture are infinitely subdivisible and hence the possibility for detailed exploration is limitless.

to the inexperienced ear it's all just noise

well, i can vouch for the fact that the more one listens to it, the more finely attuned one's appreciation of tone production, timbre, breath etc becomes; and the more finely those qualities are bent or split or otherwise distorted, the more subtle the capacity for expression becomes.

on occasions where i have to go without for a sustained period - reed players in particular who always strive for "clean" tone - i personally do usually feel i'm missing out on something. and of course the adherents of those players would say it's my loss (which it is) but again, i cast my loving eyes over that list and i don't care for the time being about anything i'm missing.

i'm happy here :)

***gtm file here***

ghost trance music preoccupied anthony braxton for much of the last two decades - we know this. exactly what it is, how it works, etc etc - that doesn't concern me at this stage. as regards the man's musical thought, my learning edge is some way back in the time-stream, caught up in the happenings of more than three decades ago... but i listen forwards and backwards, under different conditions, and as with a martial art (or any other sphere with wide-ranging and far-reaching implications), one aspect of the practice informs all the others... each time i hear a piece of gtm, i feel a little better placed to appreciate it; and each time i find wonderful things to enchant my ears and mind and heart.

just listen...

- in my experience the music comes forth to meet the open ear; but i'm sure that (as with most things), this is to an extent a matter simply of personal taste, or of an individual fit: still, i didn't always find the later work spoke to me, and it certainly speaks to me now; so, to a certain extent it may also be a matter simply of patience.

i've listened to quite a bit of gtm this year, among other things, and i'm not about to undertake any sort of analysis of it for the foreseeable future... but it figures relatively little on the blog, and i felt it was high time to acknowledge the large part it plays in my life.

the last concert of gtm i picked up from the blogosphere was the chiasso '08 septet, posted as flacs by tantris on inconstant sol (see comments)

- by the time i'd prepared an mp3 rip, one had been dropped into the comments without my noticing. but i had already done it, so i thought i'd offer it here anyway - this was ripped at 192, resulting in one single file for download. i find the sound quality perfectly acceptable:

* * *

while i'm at it: a recent conversation has focussed on an old favourite of mine, comp. 6i. i currently have four recordings of this piece: a superb one in the studio (complete 1971), two live renditions from 1976, which i only recently came across, to my delight... and there is also this one, played by circle in hamburg, march 1971:

- the full (110mins) broadcast of this concert - the precise date of which has long been disputed - is being prepared for posting at sol as i write... look out for it soon! glmlr, who has a particular interest in this group, will say more about it than i plan to here... meantime, collectors and lovers of this piece may want to get a taste... there's a huge alto solo in it ;-)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

mr mojo risin'

tight meat trio featuring sonny simmons
jookloo duo
red rose, london n4
monday 19th november 2007

the scene: it was a proper english november special: cold and windy AND raining to boot, so that only the very determined were ever likely to show up for this... anyone in two minds would've taken one look at the evening weather and decided against it. atanase and i had to find the place too; in all the years i lived in north london, all the times i had driven back home up seven sisters road, i had never once glanced left and noticed the red rose, sandwiched between two grim housing estates. meantime the powerhaus, a metal venue that opened in 1995 (previously the sir george robey, venue for the most exciting metal gig i ever saw... that's another story, but it does bear telling - see comments), has evidently closed down some time since; the dark hulking shell is on our left as we pass, heading away from finsbury park tube (and that was weird also, taking me right back to my first ever day as a london resident)... london's notorious "terror mosque" is/was around here somewhere too: i don't think the area is built on any native american burial grounds, but there is possibly something a bit odd in the air (or in the water, or in the earth).

i was surprised to see mike figgis there, just as he had been there at charles gayle the night before... his expression never seemed to change on either occasion, so who knows what he thought (or why he chose to rough it with us rather than attend something far trendier - this gig was a wire event, nothing to do with the london jazz festival) - in any case this was also something of a bloggers' reunion since atanase and i both met the legend that is(n't) king kennytone for the first time - or rather we didn't since kk does not, of course, exist - guinness was bought and plastic chairs were arranged: a dark chilly room in the back of a pub, this was not the high life... indeed it could scarcely be further removed from the air-kissing whimsy of the previous night.

the venue is cheap, hence frequently used (*see comments) by free improvisers and occasional celebrity guests from the free jazz scene, and is known in particular for its association with (drum 'n bass producers-cum-born again improvisers) john coxon and ashley wales, better known together as spring heel jack. and they were present in the audience too, handing out flyers between sets, neither of them (it must be said) looking especially healthy... something about the free improv lifestyle apparently not sitting too well with them.

* * *

atanase had refused to play me any recordings by jookloo (duo or trio) beforehand, wanting to maximise the impact, the surprise... and that's what i got, since virginia genta is only a slip of a thing and doesn't look as if she could easily hold a tenor sax, never mind make much noise with it. the drummer (maurizio someone..? sorry, can't remember, i realise this is a bit slack of me) gets behind his kit just a few feet away from us, genta unpacks her sax unceremoniously, they look at each other - and bang, her very first entry pretty much takes my head off. where does all that power come from?? her whole being is going into this, she is fully committed... (this, in a way, is the key to the entire evening as far as i'm concerned.) no, i don't remember too much about the music they played - the drummer basically just lays down a heavy background of free jazz rhythm and leaves his partner to supply the fire and brimstone on top; genta, in turn, alternates her industrial-strength sax with moments of singing, eyes closed, little bells in her hands, on walkabout through the sparse audience. there is not much planning to it, by the looks of things - it all seems to come from within. there are times when they respond to each other, or rather when the drummer tries to respond to his partner; he also tries to mix it up occasionally, using the point of a stick on a cymbal for example, but on the whole it's pretty straightforward. and it's all the more invigorating for that. i find it hard to take my eyes off genta throughout - she plays as if possessed.

after the set, which finishes fairly abruptly to somewhat stunned applause, i spy genta on her own, over by the merch stand, and i wander over to congratulate her. she is genuinely pleased; and when i ask "how did you get started in this sort of thing?", wondering what route she took into free jazz, she just laughs easily. "i don't think you can start in this music", she says. "you have to feel it inside."

[this was the best answer anyone could have hoped for, and is part of the reason i defended jookloo, a couple of days later, against accusations of dilettantism (on the bbc messageboard, from others who had seen the group on a different night). one poster in particular had them down as merely playing the game, not really true free jazz but just going through the motions. he hadn't talked to either of the players, and i had; but in truth i hadn't needed to do so in order to confirm what i thought, what i felt. every twisted note that poured from her sax confirmed genta's integrity and seriousness for me; i can't necessarily say the same for the drummer, it's true, but let's just stop and consider something: why on earth would two young people embark on a miserable tour of england in november, playing run-down venues to small crowds, probably roughing it along the way in cheap accommodation and even cheaper transport, if something within were not compelling them to do so? for the sheer glamour of being associated with free jazz?? er, not..!]

as i walked back to my chair the drummer appeared, so i congratulated him too, and again was rewarded with a big beaming smile, slightly manic in this case. "you like free jazz?" he asked enthusiastically, and when i replied in the affirmative, he followed up with "me, no. fuck free jazz!!!" and laughed maniacally. seeing me in a state of some confusion, not knowing what to say to that, he reassured me that he was joking. who knows, perhaps he thought all english people come straight out of monty python.

* * *

sonny simmons - like charles gayle, but in a totally different way - polarises the attention just by entering the room. big and powerfully built, he has some trouble walking, stiffness in his legs and hips by the look of it, but his upper body still apparently contains the heart and lungs of an ox. and when he grasps his alto, ready to play, his massive hands and forearms wouldn't look out of place on a professional wrestler. he also has a most arresting face, reminding me somewhat of john lee hooker - to say his features look "lived-in" would be an understatement. to complete the picture, every so often he casts a diabolical, sidelong leer at no-one in particular and works his tongue around in his mouth. what those leering eyes have seen, what stories the mouth could tell, one hesitates even to wonder.

tight meat - themselves in their trio incarnation, saxman david keenan and drummer alex neilson joined by a bassist seemingly old enough to be their father - deal in pretty basic stuff. to judge from this performance, they play high-intensity free jazz verging on noise, which is exactly the sort of thing simmons himself has scathingly dismissed on numerous occasions in the past. free in spirit, simmons nevertheless has formidable technique and an advanced approach to chordal harmony, not unlike his old friend and sparring partner eric dolphy. he is anything but a crazed fire-breather. so what's he doing with these young noise merchants? more than a few people had wondered this, and evidently most of them were left scratching their heads after the tour. the music, if we can call it that, is a raging cacophony of free-blowing noise, and thanks to the no-frills setup and the proximity of the audience, no amplification is required in order to sandblast our eardrums.

but here's the thing. with no p.a., no mixing, i can scarcely hear keenan at all over the racket from the drumset, even though he's visibly blowing his heart out; yet every note from simmons is clearly audible. "leather lungs" is not even in it, and it's effortless. the sheer power at his disposal is awesome, and ensures that i can recognise his sound, the huge biting urgency of his tone, even though the name of the game is nothing more than every man for himself, blow until you drop. for this reason nothing he plays is individually memorable to me (though atanase said he began to detect some of sonny's pet phrases, later in the set); but that doesn't matter. the performance itself is overwhelmingly impressive. accepting an invitation from two young gunslingers, who in theory should have far more energy than him, simmons takes them on at their own game and simply wipes the floor with them. this is a lesson the young scots will surely not forget in a hurry.

sonny's legs, not his lungs, let him down from time to time and he has to sit down for a bit, give them some rest. but despite himself, whatever he may think of the primitive music in principle, you can see that he digs something about it: even sat down, several times that devilish leer comes out and he stamps his left foot hard on the floor, getting off on the power if nothing else. neilson is hardly the most skilled or subtle of drummers, but he does make a hell of a lot of noise, which is not necessarily as easy as it sounds - like abstract art, anyone "ought" to be able to do it, but that doesn't mean that everyone can. neilson never stops whipping up that storm, his facial expression urgent and anxious throughout, and keenan gives it his all. the bassist, older and wiser, is better able to husband his strength, but in truth he's pretty much incidental to what's going on here. this is all about harnessing the power of the tempest, and simmons is prospero, in that case, master of all he surveys.

eventually the racket dies away and ceases, and sonny (looking as fresh as a daisy) announces that they will take a break, "we'll play better, later". but they never do come back on - keenan in particular is exhausted. [atanase in fact runs into him outside the gents', and reports that he can barely stand up or even focus his eyes: trying to keep up with simmons has flattened him.] simmons, now at a loose end, wanders over to the merch table and promptly begins chatting up the young woman sitting behind it, not put out in the least by her flustered middle-class laugh. she probably thought he was joking, but i'm not so sure. sonny was ready to go another set; what's he gonna do with all that energy now? he's in no hurry to leave the room, and atanase and i both take the opportunity to shake his grappler's hand and praise his performance. he's very approachable, and under other circumstances, we could doubtless have bought him a drink and got him to tell us all about playing with dolphy (and everyone else, sonny having played with practically everybody over the decades) - but unfortunately one of us has been feeling decidedly ill all day, it's just not the right occasion for it.

well, another time, then. because, for sure, i would like to see this man again before he leaves us, and yes, for sure, next time i would prefer to hear him play his music. but if i never get to do that, i won't mind so very much - because i saw this gig. all musical considerations, doubts about the inherent limitations of the material, went out the window - i witnessed a living legend at close quarters, and more to the point, i saw WHY he's a legend. always known for his incredible speed of thought and articulation, sonny simmons was also instantly identifiable on record by his piercing tone; and after all these years, all those batterings of ill-fortune, all that time in the wilderness, he still has it, and the force and conviction which comes with it. i'll say it again: i saw a living legend that night. what more could i have asked for?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

braxtothon '08: session 006 (a&b)

- this was one of those starter-and-main-course affairs: after the creative orchestra, the next station stop is not until may, and it comes in the form of just one track, and a short one at that... so i worked it into the session for the album which followed it. (this is as good a time as any to ask: do any readers have unreleased recordings of b's performance(s) from the wildflowers festival? the "official" recordings from this event were, of course, originally available on a box set of five lps; later the same anthology appeared on three cds. but obviously this anthology contained only extracts, not complete live sets - and some other material is in circulation among fans, e.g. a radio broadcast of a brief interview with air, followed by two pieces from that trio - different pieces from the air number on the official release. anyone got more? please drop us a line!)

session 006a: comp. 6f* (from wildflowers)
date: 15th (?) may 1976

restructures link

- yet another version of this piece, known to us now as 6f, generally known back then as "73 kelvin" (or various permutations thereof)... nor is this version the final one, although in theory the piece has been superseded by now - comp. 40(o) has been in the repertoire for at least two years at this point, but the earlier repetition series, the first of its type, is a piece which b. seemed to rediscover, and evidently loved playing with george lewis...

... and not just lewis! the group for this performance, not a working band (the quartet was on hold at this point), is generally given as a sextet: braxton, lewis and altschul are joined by fred hopkins, phillip wilson and michael (gregory) jackson - was this the first time b. had used a guitarist to help interpret one of his compositions? - but that line-up misses one salient fact, namely that there is a pianist here too, very much so. (someone once told me that it's anthony davis, which sounds perfectly feasible... and is backed up by a gerry hemingway interview, see comments for details.)

after a gentle start (presumably emerging from a previous link phase), this rendition is taken very fast, the band really tearing into the tricky theme, b. in particular making it sound absurdly easy... but within less than a minute, we are just out there again, and whereas many previous versions of the piece were characterised by a return from hyperspace, a restatement (which generally sounded very different), this one never does come back from beyond - though of course we don't know what happened after the faded-out percussion which closes the official track. (the applause is for b's solo rather than for the end of the piece as such.) basically what we have in this recording is two solos, the piano and then the leader's alto, and both are full of delights - but there is also much coming and going by the various players, allowing all sorts of combinations and complex textures. lewis, though his contribution here is quite limited, sounds perfectly at home: the wah-wah-wah noises he makes in the second minute (picking up from the leader, on a monster of some sort, though it sounds to me like a contrabass clarinet rather than the sax which is listed in the credits... it's only brought out quite briefly, anyway) represent a very simple idea, but one which works very well to reinforce the sense of vague, pregnant menace; jackson echoes lewis, in turn, with ringing harmonics. davis flies all over the keyboard, superbly backed up by hopkins and the twin percussionists. and shortly before the 4-min mark, the leader's alto takes over, with some wonderfully contemplative, measured initial entries - from here on out, it's all about him, and he runs through many of his tricks in quick succession: squeals, flutters, violent distortions and a flowing master-tag which is a joy in itself - while maintaining a dry, thoughtful tone for the majority of his phrases. in the sixth minute of the piece, he really takes off and plays with increasing force and speed, using coerced breaths in that marvellous way of his; at 5.50, he unleashes a simple two-note phrase which i find terribly hard to describe, but it's as if he's stepping down on the notes - it's extremely effective, worth listening to the piece just for this one moment. could i ever tire of listening to this man play? not if he plays like that, at any rate...

clearly, lewis has a good idea by now (if he didn't already) of what this music is all about. and just to prove that, next up is the first of two duets between the two hornmen this year...

session 006b: elements of surprise
date: 7th june 1976

restructures link

... and right from the off, this performance just crackles with excitement.

* * *

"the best you can be" - this is what jazz musicians are not supposed/encouraged/allowed to discover in themselves according to braxton, the philosopher - well, naturally it is merely one of a number of such glass ceilings, undeclared restrictions on one's creativity - but it's the one we are most concerned with here, because this magnificent album perfectly demonstrates the self-perpetuating possibility-generator effect which can occur when any two (or more) heretics - musicians who have taken it upon themselves to discover the best they can be, in defiance of the hidden hand - congregate and communicate. the effortless quality of the musicianship makes one gasp with delight, even laugh out loud perhaps. and now we know for certain that a new level has been reached, because this sort of deep and intimate communication was never undertaken with wheeler, nor could it have been - which is to take nothing away from what they did share, which was a very deep form of intimacy in itself, and utterly apposite to its time, in terms of b's personal development (and arguably some way ahead of the majority of partnerships in mainstream jazz at that time); but what wheeler most offered as a partner was company for lamentation and longing reflection: the discovery of each other's frailties and vulnerabilities gave each the strength to expose those soft underbellies to the world and know they would survive; but although wheeler is in his natural element doing that, braxton is not and it's time he moved on now.

the new blood: george lewis's trombone is one of the most joyous, life-affirming voices i have ever heard in music, and all the more reassuring for the massive intelligence and self-control which is as clear in his playing as if he were discoursing in spoken language (some might say clearer, since lewis the writer has read the likes of lacan, and knows it's not all about being "understood"..!). and already a virtuoso beyond the ordinary player's imagining, at such a young age - what a shining example for our man, and what a glorious encapsulation of human interaction at its best: everybody wins, everyone is enriched and ennobled through the transaction which occurs! the teacher has both the pleasure (and the satisfaction) of working with a student whose voracious appetite for learning and advancement is matched by his talent and his easy self-confidence, and also the invaluable lesson of remembering how to enjoy life unworried for a while, taught by the student in this case; and for the student, how much better could learning be than to be given practice which gives absolute free rein to one's self-expression, whilst at the same time flexing every single one of the muscles, in turn? what better way to learn, to teach? there is none better, i repeat: this is human interaction at its best.

so a blow-by-blow account would be endless, and endlessly self-reflexive. from the territory-establishing "space invaders" motif that starts up within twenty seconds of the first piece, we know that we are in the company of two young masters here: to be a bit more precise about it, at this stage we are probably witnessing a meeting of a third-dan black belt already well respected as a teacher for ambitious and talented students, and a new student, only a first dan but clearly (so clearly!) destined for stellar heights, marked out for greatness from the getgo.

- and today it is get ready, set, and go: comp. 64 is initiated unhurriedly by lewis, ringing out a single note and stretching it like candyfloss, then dropping down a notch for the second entry and giving it already some extra puff (some eyebrows scrawled on the portrait before the party even begins, so we know there'll be no hollow lip-service paid round here) - then the leader describes a figure in the air which (experience suggests) will be reshown to us later, gives us a pause to think about it; and now the two of them, with commendable nonchalance verging on slackness, set up a very basic three-note descending motif - which lewis is suddenly left to carry, as the leader immediately embarks on the day's first alto solo. and there is no shame for lewis in this: he understands that the student will be asked to take this role and besides, he understands the freedom to be found in manual labour: so long as the job is done it's up to you how you go about it, and as the younger man sets about taking charge of the pace, the ambience and the harmonic texture (the threatening "steps of doom" motif is very, very similar to the sort of thing used by the very first "ufo invasion"-style computer games to let you know that you are fighting these moving sigils, not trying to make friends with them - but here the menace is all theatre, just a means of generating tension purely for the explosive joy to be found in harnessing it and releasing it under your own control)... so the leader, octupling the time effortlessly, takes control of establishing the dynamics: during the next thirty-forty secs (what seems like page after page of score because b's playing is so fast, his speed of articulation always amazing me each time i encounter it, even though by now i have heard literally hundreds of his solos), the improvisation which develops is familiar enough in its content, a whole series of connected and tessellating tags by which our singer is compelled on each new occasion to announce himself, but the soft and fluttering attacks are something quite new in this context, and must surely be an example of a lesson absorbed from warne marsh... and lewis matches the soft intensity, then immediately takes the licence to go in harder as soon as it's offered, and really pushes it, floors it.

now that is what wheeler couldn't really do - and it's not his fault, it's just not really in him, there is no question of lack of willingness or commitment; he just doesn't have that much that he wants to say, taken that far out. he's too far from home. lewis will just run with it and run with it, and will never get scared off or even (confidence of gifted youth in a physically imposing frame) pause for self-doubt.

naturally, this is not the whole of the story of the piece, merely the opening sequence; the phrase dangled so enticingly before our ears by braxton just before the alien invasion kicks off does indeed return round about the three-minute mark, and by that time the piece has covered so much ground already that one's head could be left spinning if it weren't all so marvellously entertaining, as well as unbelievably instructive - and among other things, this piece goes on to address approaches to variation/opposition in dynamics in a way just as effective as, and completely different from, the evergreen ballad archetype for solo voice, comp. 8c. so yes, we get wonderfully soft playing, and thrillingly powerful playing too, devilishly so, thanks to
young master lewis and his golden 'bone - but thanks also to the not-quite-so-young master braxton and his magic alto, exulting in the company of someone who isn't afraid to make some noise. and yes, when it's quiet it's worthy of marsh - and that is still just one aspect of this piece which also, by the beginning of the fifth minute, shows how readily b. can indulge in the free improv approach (which some british critics still claim he did not understand until seventeen years later), and the two guys knock it around in pure conversation form, as long as they feel like. hey, if it's good enough for dolphy and mingus... right? right... there's nothing really new under the sun, and all we're doing is hanging out and talking, ultimately...

... in turn, this easy nonchalance and lack of formality is what frees up the vehicle to carry the message far beyond the level of just hanging out and talking...

... and i've still only given some flavour of this one piece, enough to let you know what we're dealing with here, and how many different things there are to consider and discover; ultimately it's another sort of access code piece, the dynamic shifts being revealed in due course as one of the key elements in a special phrase for the two voices to repeat together, some notes supplied by only voice, some by both, timing and attack and release and harmony and tone among the other variables to take into account when spelling out the demanding sequence - and with the door opened, all sorts of furies are unleashed, we're at full battle stations in the ninth minute - but the insights to be gained from using that sequence to open the door, well, the "take that to the bank!" declaration of the final joint attack is all the evidence you need.

you probably get the idea by now, if we went into this in full detail we really would be at it all week. even just to write up my notes for the whole album would keep us here for a day or two; so let's say instead, if you haven't heard this album, stop reading and go and get it (see comments again). don't tell me your interest is not piqued by now! there's only four pieces, anyway: besides this monstrously good opener, there is a standard, "ornithology", which reminds me by this point that yes, mr b. will always return to the book from time to time but on his terms, which is to say: with appropriate respect, and appropriate irreverence - tunes pulled wide open and examined for fresh clues, not put in a fucking glass case like some museum exhibit (an approach which is supposedly an honorific, but is really an insult to the artist, to the art itself and to the intelligence of the audience); a teaser, a riddle - as he likes to give us from time to time too, here in the form of comp. 65 which is short here and tantalising, reminiscent in various ways of comp. 23h (five/1975), but which in any case represents unfinished business, since this particular riddle or conjuring trick will still provide food for thought a quarter-century later, and plenty of it; and in a most magnanimous gesture, the whole of the second lp side is given over to the student's modest offering, lewis' own attempt to escape the restrictions of tunes and titles, to stake his claim as a composer, simply entitled "music for trombone and b-flat soprano" - and let's be clear, with no disrespect whatsoever to mr lewis, i was never going to be making any serious attempt to analyse this one structurally anyway, but make no mistake, there are so many superb moments and different angles to this music also, the black hole beckons again. one thing i will single out from it: it's very curious and interesting to note that around the five-min mark, lewis sets up the kind of military march that surely must delight the teacher, yet b. leaves it alone. on this occasion. there will be plenty of time to get stuck into that idea...

(grading: CCCC. sublime... really, seriously, forget whatever austerities one might anticipate from the sparse instrumentation, this is a perfect example of just how many ways there are to please the ear, the heart and the mind in modern creative music. go get it.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

1982 pisa trio

**update 29/12/12 - see latest comment

last week saw an abundant sharing of wonderful live material on inconstant sol - all of it hidden away in the comments on kinabalu's braxton 1969 post, having been tirelessly upped by tantris. kinabalu's original post, which kicked the whole thing off, does not itself sound like a live recording, but as of yet there are numerous question marks over it... though no doubts about the quality of the music!

i promised last week (on sol) to post an mp3 version of one concert: the improvised trio of mr b. with derek bailey and george lewis from pisa in 1982. the sheer quality of this performance, in terms of successful group interaction (to put it mildly) and continuous commitment, engagement and invention from all three players, is so remarkable that i knew i was gonna have to talk about it a bit - let's not forget: our man is not yet supposed to be able to communicate meaningfully with the european free royalty such as bailey ;-)

anyway... there was a dropout on the source recording, which i have fixed (restoring completely seamless play); and i found myself breaking the piece into three parts, indexing at b's re-entries each time, so as to make the whole just a little more palatable for inexperienced listeners who are overwhelmed by the density of the music (again, play is seamless, just remember to take out gaps before burning to cd!) - in truth it would be possible to index it into ten or twelve parts at least, so much ground is covered by our three co-pilots and so swiftly do the basic mood changes zip from one to the others.

bailey probably surprises least here - which is not to say that he ever sounds less than fully appropriate to the moment; maybe i was just constantly distracted by the two hornmen, just amazing from start to finish really... lewis is a wizard, preternaturally forming the mesh through which these two completely different voices - braxton and bailey - can bind together: b's "birdsong" approach to open improv, to soloing generally, is free in spirit and always essentially unpredictable, yet usually takes the character of developing melody; so it's seemingly a poor match for bailey's spiky non-tuned obstinacy, but they've worked together successfully before (on numerous occasions) and here they are brought very closely together by lewis, who provides the middle ground yet is always taking full licence to express himself.

and as for my main man... well, no-one'll be too surprised to see that reed moments predominate among the few highlights i've singled out below:

a) around 6.00 (and before) b. is using circular breathing on the sopranino, in the manner more often associated with evan parker (who taught him this last technique) or roscoe mitchell - this is the earliest occasion on which i myself have noticed this being used (though i daresay it's probably not the earliest occasion it was used update: see comment #11)... ** b) from around 8.00 in the same section, b. seizes on the very wyrd backdrop co-created by the others to develop a strategy for the clarinet which is not unlike his own comp. 38a (new york, fall 1974)... it works so well that the others are happy to let it spin out for a while... ** c) from around 3.00 in the second section, b's soft whistle builds into a spiralling scream, spellbinding in its frightening intensity, which employs circular breathing to a different end, channels the most intense collection of dark emotions - then subsides easily into a beautiful passage of utterly different flavour, the reed now so sweetly persuasive in its soft flutterings - the extreme dynamic divide just crossed is all in a day's work for these three heroic explorers... ** d) at 9.00ish in the second part, lewis takes some time out to explain what he really wants to say and brother, it's strange and riveting in the telling ***@@@*** ... ** e) around 1.00 into the last section, braxton's amazing conception is new to me (as is the spiral scream of earlier) - can never recreate it in my head afterwards, so shan't describe it... go geddit :)

here's the file, full info included:

see comments for more details about last week's hectic activity...

keep the faith... spread the word

Friday, May 9, 2008

braxtothon '08: session 005

fun-filled 1976... fiesta year! the rocketship finally lifts off amidst a feast of february fireworks - to call these sessions "displays" would be stretching a point though, since no audiences were present. no, this recording represents one of the more remarkable wool-pulling acts carried off (with quiet aplomb) by michael cuscuna and steve backer during b's time with a major, because surely this album was by no means cheap to produce; of course, the apogee of this quickly-while-they're-looking-the-other-way conspiracy was the experiment with four orchestras, but we know that the braxton household had to invest pretty heavily in that one to get it realised.

the irony of this is that in a parallel universe in which the average taste was only a little more refined, less easily satiated, this album could feasibly be a straightforward commercial success - something for everyone in here! alas, back in our duller "real" world, miles' second great quintet didn't sell... and this wasn't about to, either.

session 005: creative orchestra music 1976

restructures link

the band: the creative orchestra, this time round (first outing since 1972 under this guise and only the second overall), has a somewhat unbalanced look from our perspective now: the reed section is very much dominated by the leader (and why not), his three colleagues not exactly of all-star quality - though roscoe mitchell joins them for three of the six pieces. the rest of the band is a familiar roll-call of names though, with just the odd exception, and the brass section in particular has some very interesting internal dynamics. specifically, this project sees the return of wheeler to b's music (and so soon after he left it, though this swift willingness is to prove a bit of a red herring) - and in coming back, he passes the baton to his eventual successor in the quartet, though whether this was understood at the time is doubtful i should think. (in forces in motion, braxton tells lock that lewis - one of just three musicians he is compelled to praise specially when lock asks him for comments on his former collaborators - first worked with him at a "jazz workshop in boston in 1976" but lock doesn't specify when. it's also unclear whether b. actually asked lewis to join the quartet right away on that first occasion, or if this only happened a little later.)

including the leader, twelve players participate in all six pieces, but the ensemble is never less than thirteen at any one time (the album closer, a top hatful of horns and holland; no piano, no percussion) and expands to twenty for two pieces - rather surprisingly, these are not the big band extravaganza pieces (of which there are three), but two of the three more abstract compositions (the closer being the third). the big centrepiece, comp. 58, features nineteen players, the largest version of the ensemble on a "jazz" piece (though "jazz" really is a pretty loose term in this instance - read on).

leo smith is very much in evidence, m. r. abrams also, on this thoroughly aacm-worthy project... no leroy jenkins..?

the programme: more likely with (optimistic) commercial considerations in mind than consciously adapting the fall '74 formula, b. and his team have devised an alternating programme of three set pieces, three outer explorations - and the concluding piece, once more, points in the most directions at once since it is basically a condensed concerto for multi-instrumentalist and eleven horns, plus holland. this one (comp. 59) is theoretically specified as a piece for two soloists and thirteen instrumentalists... i didn't hear anyone else soloing here except the leader (naturally), on three horns, no less... in any case it comes the closest to being a hybrid (a set piece extrapolated outwards in several directions) and hence it's appropriate that it closes the album, and on a note which is both satisfyingly steady and yet not fully resolved. the straightforward climax of the show is actually placed at the end of the vinyl side one, this being the odd-one-out set piece, owing less to jazz than to b's unexpected hero john philip sousa. (and what a climax it is! plenty to say about this below.)

the fact that the closer sets b. the instrumentalist against a backdrop of other horns in a prescribed-but-empowering environment has a significance i want to underline, because of course this is the (first) year of intimate encounters as we know now, and as well as taking on an entire horn chorus in group dialogue, b. squeezes in two other encounters on this album, both with a favourite instrument of his, the piano. his "accompanied duet" with rzewski (in the second pure soundscape) looks back to comp. 6(o), while the final-twist showdown with abrams (in the third set piece) sparks off an idea which will warrant further inspection in a few months' time, when the two men meet in a studio duo.

* * *

some specifics...

comp. 51 is the first of two edgy, up-tempo big band jazz numbers, and it's a great way to start things off, beginning as it does with a lovely complex chord, full of spiky tension, fired out repeatedly in a sort of call-to-arms. fourteen players make a big sound here, bigger than the mere number would suggest perhaps, but what happens next shows that even such a condensed grouping can tread on its own feet - the theme, when it arrives within the first minute, has the character of a line for single voice, and arranged as it is for several reeds at once, the effect is a little cluttered and chaotic. but it's a very bold way to get things going, and it never stays still too long: a second brass unison around 0.45 restores some order, and from the start of the second minute, the quickfire exchanges between sections, all irregular interjections and barely-controlled excitement, briefly seem to take place within a sort of cop-show-theme set-up, but the most intense of its type one could imagine, and besides (like everything in this hectic showcase) it doesn't last long.

b. waits until third in line to take his first solo (*) - a rare attack of diffidence there, but the solo when it comes is assertive enough, picking up from the previous one at 2.23 with a cooo-eee, which recurs around 2.37, the two framing the usual signature gear-shifts and variances which tell us who is playing; on this manic opener even the leader must be brief for a change, and before 3 mins is on the clock we are back to the opening chord, the tension all still there. just after 3.00, a new development occurs, just for fifteen seconds, a slightly faster and even more urgent rhythm picking up out of nowhere, but by 3.25 a quick drum fill leads us back into the original pulse, and a rapid-fire series of miniature statements from all comers, a game of tag in which the spotlight flits around from one player to the next, each grabbing a few bars... all the reeds sound pretty good at this stage, but even so the leader has no trouble picking himself out, his lovely cameo around 4.20 cueing up another repetition of the opening chord, which this time overlaps with, and subsides into, a thirty-second coda, almost (in a way) a "kaleidoscoped" multiplication of the one which ends the (studio) 23b: horn scrawls and squiggles take us out to a final, drawn-out chord with a quick release, leaving the listener pretty much gasping for breath. a lot has been squeezed into the last (less than) five and a half minutes!

comp. 56, the longest piece on the album (though there isn't much in it), utilises the full twenty players, but deploys them in the sort of spare manner one hasn't necessarily come to associate with this composer, creating a soundscape as far removed from the barnstorming opener as it's possible to get. it begins with very high and very low horns and winds itself down almost to nothing right away, leaving silences and large areas of space, marvellous deep textures within that space, like an underwater seascape perhaps, or an extraterrestrial excursion: as well as the manifold, economically-arranged sundry voices, we are in the company of one of b's fellow explorers here, richard teitelbaum, and he provides wonderfully subtle sighing and whispering effects, as well as occasional comets or shooting stars - indeed the overall picture i am left with is that of a remote corner of some dark and distant planet, strange denizens looking up as celestial bodies cross their skies, portents which they may or may not understand. wherever we are, the big, bouncy steps we hear throughout this piece (courtesy of some boing-ing tymps) suggest that the environment's gravity is less than we are used to.

after a couple of minutes of the most minimal beauty, the piano's first entry at around 2.20 is startlingly brisk and jerks the listener out of a reverie; when the leader joins in, this in turn cues up a whole burst of weirdness, specifically the first use of the "trampoline" effect on the drum. the first shooting stars are witnessed some time after this. some delightful puffs and purrs from the monster around 4.45 set off the bendy drum again. for all its imagistic splendour, the piece is well curtailed though - by six minutes i'm wondering how long the momentum can be maintained without slipping, there isn't quite enough going on to suggest a longer excursion. still, these are short pieces and deal (again) in possibilities, new directions for the future... in spirit the piece also harks back to "eclipse" by charles mingus (and through him to the impressionists, presumably), therefore also to dolphy who recorded that piece (on out there: first ever mingus "cover version"), but this is less a chamber piece, really something entirely more planetary in scope, albeit similarly night-hued. another comet from teitelbaum heralds the end of the piece...

... and the next thing we hear, after a suitably tantalising pause, will be one of the biggest surprises any braxton listener could have asked for at the time! comp. 58 may not be the first of the "circus marches" to be composed (6c clearly predates it), but was it the first one to be unveiled..? even if not, who was ready for this?! the big-top theme which jumps out of the speakers is not even skewed in any way, it really is the sort of happy-go-lucky pre-match rouser that a high school band might be given to play - in this world, not some soft-watch parallel universe! even here, once one has recovered from the shock (might take a couple of plays), it's easy enough to use the magnifying glass because of the many individual voices in there, each chirping up in turn with some little embellishment. but the second stage is really so clever. the main theme lasts 45 seconds; after the beat which follows, the oompahs of the next lines will drop any jaws which remain unfloored, this being surely the cheesiest thing b. could possibly have come up with here - yet this is exactly the way things will be turned on their head, in just fifteen seconds more.

what happens next is the reason i now think of this as being a sort of cross between cinderella's story and those of alice, because on the first stroke of midnight, we are transported through the looking glass so fast and so silently that by the time we start looking around to see what's changed, we realise everything has changed. and yes, the brazen starbursts and oompahs are the very vehicle through which this transportation is achieved: with the new theme developing (harmonically) exactly as expected for fifteen seconds more, the tonality is altered completely between 1.00 and 1.01 on the clock (literally, right then - no idea whether this was deliberate): even as the rhythm remains the same, the notes have changed to a warning tone, now the rhythm is changing too, what's happening here - ? and at 1.04 a trumpet enters with a sort of tormented shriek, and we know for sure that we are suddenly light years from home. just like that.

the trumpet solo is a tour-de-force of weirdness and anxiety, and although i don't claim to be able to identify him very well, looking at the personnel i have to guess it's leo smith. (he is also conducting this piece, the only one on which he does both - he is very closely involved with the whole album.) but for the next minute or so, we never even come close to levelling out, the soloist really sustains the unease extraordinarily well, even as the other brass cluster around and bark out stuttering exhortations self-consciously reminiscent of stravinsky's sacre du printemps - that really locates us somewhere very dark and perilous, yet suddenly, just when it's least expected (again!), the most lovely release takes over (2.35ish) and all the edginess is behind us. the flute which enters next is delicate and breezy, and then comes some gorgeous cartoon trombone from lewis - with the very first of his soaring high notes he may as well be telling the leader "i'm your man!" in just a few seconds he shows us what b. has been trying to explain all this time, that once you're out here in the hinterlands, it's not all darkness and unease. right here in this brief improvisation, lewis indicates two whole new dimensions for expansion to come later on: great wit and humour, and also yet further weirdness. both were very much present before, but will expand rapidly during the next twelve months or so.

the clarinet solo which follows (*) demonstrates pretty much all the preceding qualities at once, and the edgy backing is restored, lest we forget how far out we have gone, how different the other side of the glass really is; but around 5.50, amazingly, a full band recovery is attempted, beginning with some bold linking phrases and descending, eventually, by decelerating steps to the triumphant restatement of the theme, slower now and with (figurative) firecrackers, the works in other words, and a nice big happy chord to send us out into the night. not so much a circus theme as an entire circus performance, complete with opening and closing ceremonies, this amazing one-off occupies less than seven minutes of listening time, yet seems to represent a whole evening's experience.

* * *

phew, that's a good time for a quick pause, let's pretend we're flipping the side...

* * *

comp. 57 is from the same stock as 56, both "slow pulse structures" (and neither of them was ever recorded again - the other four pieces all returned in 1978) - and the percussion, piano and reeds which open this one let us know straight away that it's another alien vista we are dealing with. some busy mallet percussion behind the dirgelike horn line in the second minute leads us to the main event of the piece, whereby rzewski suddenly finds a clearing with b's flute waiting there, and over the course of about one minute they are able to converse intimately, with no-one else really in earshot. the flute and the spare elegance of the piano lines... is this the sort of dream duet b. had in mind, when he wrote comp. 6(o), dedicated to rzewski..? well, here he gets to do it at last, that is, set out the same sort of (harmonically and emotionally) complex ballad tessitura he visits in the earlier piece, though admittedly not at length: it's a beautiful moment, not a huge landmark perhaps, but it offers a glimpse of the key to reading the (very deep and subtle) earlier piece. in any case it elapses soon enough, replaced by some more resonant, melodious 'bone over a bowed bass, more lewis wizardry (i presume?), which finishes so high up it seems to mimic radio static before it's through. just before the 4-min mark, as the ensemble kicks in with sweeping, dissonant chords which refuse to resolve, i'm reminded (for about the third or fourth time during the album) of zappa's big-band/orchestral work; but judging by the comments in forces in motion, this is far more likely to be a case of shared influences, perhaps specifically varese in these instances..? anyway, some terrific low horns (braxton and mitchell) follow and take us out.

- and speaking of same stock, comp. 55 is another "awkward swinger", not as swift in pace as 51 but with a similarly frantic, somewhat cluttered group horn line which in due course reveals itself as one of a number of pieces round about now to employ the dolphy/booker little-style not-really-a-release, a vamp-based pause between sections which serves only to jack up the tension levels still further (comp. 40b is a better-known example). after the first round of theme, all backing drops out to leave just the various brass and then the reeds to maintain the see-sawing rhythmic pulse, so that when the bass and drums do re-enter, continuity has been kept all along; a lovely wheeler solo follows, a very happy moment this since for a while there, kenny sounds genuinely happy to be back and even rather inspired, certainly quite hot and intense for a while there, though he does seem to get trapped before the end - and is rescued just in time by another unison vamp return (2.30ish). the reeds in particular sound magnificently disorganised on this cut - whether it's deliberately rehearsed for them to be slightly out-of-phase or whether it was lack of rehearsal time - who knows, but it seems to work (and dolphy himself had a clumsiness about him at times, something which made miles very uncomfortable; though it was a deceptive clumsiness, hiding within itself great elegance and finesse). in any case, the crazy conversations between all the horns within this piece just have to be heard. before and after abrams' playful-yet-erudite piano solo, these warped exchanges make me smile every time :)))

the final twist of this piece occurs very suddenly and without warning, initially in the shape of a terrific high piano figure, which chimes over and over like a ringtone as (what seems to be) an uncredited contrabass sax rolls on and tears the place up for a bit (another example of a fertile vamp, the piano phrase is really a variation on a part of the original theme). tonally the sax suffers in comparison with the monster, but still, this little duet is definitely one which will bear revisiting! and it's coming, soon enough.

finally, comp. 59 is our little concertino for horns and more horns, beginning almost like an early adumbration of comp. 98, but busier and with, of course, far more voices. still, this is like a gradual dawn chorus of sorts... until a sudden chord releases the leader's alto at 0.45, and for almost two minutes he holds forth with a series of strained barks and breath/reed manipulations, none of which could be rendered with any form of conventional notation - while the chorus greet each new revelation with shocked gasps: "i did this and this!" NO!! "yes, and then this..." OOOHH!! etc. it really is an extraordinary conversation...

... and as if it weren't enough, when the alto suddenly breaks off at 2.37, we are immediately thrown into a queasy, heaving sea of wavering reeds, and the monster is out to play. and when he is quiet again, the reeds continue doing a remarkable impression of a small string section, swaying drunkenly up and down in the water, till suddenly at 3.28 more gasps from the chorus cue up yet another solo, this time on sopranino, all three of the leader's favourite voices getting an outing here. (so thrillingly fluid when he hits top speed on this instrument.) eventually this too concludes, and the piece winds back down into more sparse (and still fascinating) birdcalls from all corners, the day's cycle perhaps completed, and the album coming to a gentle but thought-provoking close, the very end just rootless enough to hover in the ear after the sound has decayed. above all this second ending, unlike the cartwheels and sparklers that wrap up side one, says there is much more to come.

(CCCC. are you kidding? hey, in the parallel universe i was describing earlier - the one where the average person is just slightly more discerning, less easily fobbed off with cheap trinkets - this album was a big hit and remains much discussed and referenced... fun for all the family! no, it's true, the far-out parts are really pretty far out, way too weird for most listeners in this world; and though the music is seldom devoid of warmth and even humour, those qualities are not necessarily the first to leap out at a casual (or inexperienced) ear. again - apparently not many people want to listen that hard when they play music. but it is almost heartbreaking to think what a wonderful example b. was setting with this recording, and to realise how little attention the world paid...)

(* v.comments)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

braxtothon '08: week two preamble

1976 is a big year in the discography for several reasons. for a start, from my point of view it's another one of those intimidating peaks - indeed, a whole moutain range - in that i already had most of its (numerous) entries in the discog: until recently the only one i had missing for this year was the very last one, the mitchell duets, and that was added just before i started the first ascent (posted by kinabalu on inconstant sol). typically, i have been eyeing the peaks suspiciously from a distance, for some time now. indeed i had long since come to the conclusion that the only way to deal with this year would be to miss out a whole clutch of stuff from the middle of it.

'cos the thing about '76 is: not only does it mark the beginning of braxton's association with george lewis (and there are several meetings before we even get to any quartets), it was also a year of close encounters, a very abundant year in terms of intimate collaborations with others. (indeed this sub-plot begins earlier than i thought, as i was soon to discover: b. manages to achieve the "alone in a crowded room" effect with frederic rzewski, several months before getting down to any actual duos or trios.) very recently, running through the twelve entries in the discog for this year, i decided that i could simply skip a whole group of these collaborations, as well as the last one... and that would still leave me with plenty of listening and writing to do.

in the event, by the time the week two listening day came around, i was unable to go through with this ruthless plan. the meetings which i was casually planning to skip comprise performances with some very important players, crucial players as far as our man is concerned: teitelbaum, abrams, bailey and parker. how the hell could i just miss these out? and the answer is that i couldn't. the only thing i could do to lighten the load, i realised now, was treat time zones and company 2 as "interlude" sessions, since neither of these recordings features any of b's own music (the trio is of course freely improvised) - but as for the album with abrams, not only did i need to hear it, i needed to treat it as a full braxtothon session. three of the pieces are b's compositions, and they effectively comprise three quarters of the running time - no, what on earth was i thinking?!

so that was how i ended up with a week two schedule like this ("week two" actually consists of one day, as far as the listening sessions are concerned): 005 creative orch. music - 006 wildflowers track + elements of surprise - then "crossing" with teitelbaum - 007 duets w/m.r.a. - then the improv trio and finally "behemoth dreams"... well, that was the plan anyway; in the event i ran out of time, but still, in terms of what did get covered this was the most productive day since the honeymoon period in early october, and possibly the most productive of all. i'm getting better at it... which is just as well, bearing in mind how much time and thought i've been devoting to it... ah, but the energy is repaid, you see :)

* * *

another thing of note that happens in '76 - after the big band dates in feb, before the wildflowers festival in may - is that holland and altschul first record as part of the sam rivers trio - the quest, the first of several cherished (regrettably rare) recordings by the group... of course it was not the first time that trio had played as such - that would be back in '74 (? i think), and regularly ever since - but this was the first time they made it into the studio, this trio which was so well-loved that it had its own reunion concert in 2007... both men would continue playing with rivers for a while, after they finally left the "school of braxton".