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)


centrifuge said...

now, about these solos... i had some trouble identifying one or two of the solos on this album, but this repeated listening business... it's good stuff, i highly recommend it to those who can find the time ;-)

understandably (if rather undemocratically), the leader hogs the spotlight on these pieces, or at least he keeps most of the solo time for himself. in that respect the album opener is actually an aberration, starting as we are *not* going to continue: the first solo on the first piece is presumably bruce johnstone on bari sax - presuming, that is, the instrumentation details are entirely correct (doubtful, they seldom are in such cases!). in any event, it isn't braxton, though it's competent enough and sets things up nicely; the trumpet solo which follows, i thought for a while was wheeler - just before signing off, it goes very high up in a manner similar to w's trademark squeal. but closer listening, especially on headphones, made me change my mind about that - the rest of the solo just doesn't sound like him, and even the "squeal" itself is not quite right for him: similar, for sure, but not the same. i oughtta recognise it by now, have heard it enough times recently! wheeler uses that effect on just about every solo he takes on a braxton number: it's his trademark, his equivalent of b's gear-shifts and tags. and for that reason, if it *were* him, he would more likely have unleashed it earlier in the solo in order to announce himself; hence i suppose it must jon faddis or cecil bridgewater.

allowing two of the less experienced players to kick things off may even be a little cruel, since b's first entry on alto (the "cooo-eee" to which i referred in the article) shows quite clearly the difference between a master and a student - not because it's difficult, but because the subtle control of tone is so assured and so individual, in a manner which must surely be beyond what most players can achieve. it's *almost* as if b. wanted two lesser players to go first just to make his own first solo stand out more... but maybe that's stretching things too far.

the other one which gave me problems is the clarinet solo in comp. 58. i don't mind admitting that i am far less quick to identify b. on clarinets (except the contrabass variety which hardly anyone plays, and no-one else plays like THAT) than i am on saxes; and besides, at the back of my mind in listening was the thought that surely roscoe mitchell must take a solo somewhere..? wheeler has one (in comp. 55), and lewis - the heir apparent - has two, unless i'm mistaken; leo smith has a very memorable one. nothing for mitchell? that is rather surprising. and i know that mitchell is capable of playing pretty much anything which braxton can play, so for a while, not having recognised b. for certain, i thought maybe it had to be mitchell here - but again, repeated listening on 'phones clears that up: the tone may not be instantly recognisable (to me) but many of the phrases are b's own. it does seem a bit strange that someone of mitchell's status would not get a few moments to himself, but perhaps he was shoehorned in at the last minute, and was content just to take part - ?

Jason Guthartz said...

soloist IDs (from the CD liner notes):

Comp. 51: Johnstone, AB, Bridgewater

Comp. 56: Holland, Teitelbaum, Lewis, Teitelbaum, Abrams and Rzewski, AB, Mitchell

Comp. 58: Smith, Lewis, AB (cl), Faddis (piccolo-tpt)

Comp. 57: Berger, AB (fl) and Abrams, Holland and List, AB (cb-sx) and Mitchell (b-sx)

Comp. 55: Wheeler, Abrams, AB (cb-sx)

Comp. 59: Mitchell (alto), AB (sopranino)

Jason Guthartz said...

George Lewis, in A Power Stronger Than Itself (pp.339-340):
"My own personal and collegial association with Braxton began in 1975 ['75? perhaps Lewis is referring to rehearsals?], at the sessions for his watershed Arista recording, Creative Orchestra Music 1976. *** The tension in the session was heightened by the extraordinary difficulty of the written music. *** In the midst of one particularly difficult secion, one of the musicians declared a certain passage unplayable and left the studio. Braxton came to me in a panic, handed me the part and asked me to try to learn it in time for the next take. The musician returned to find a trombonist playing his part, and decided to try again, realizing that if one could negotiate the section with a trombone, an instrument noted for its relative intractability in fast-moving passages, maybe it wasn't that hard after all."

and on joining the quartet (p.341):
"In the spring of 1976, ater I left the Count Basie band at the end of a two-month tour... Braxton called again, and asked me to come to New York for rehearsals prior to his engagement at the Jazz Workshop in Boxton. *** Braxton had left about thirty or forty trumpet parts with Barry [Altschul], numbered starting with "1".... I spent the next two days transposing the music for trombone. Since I knew all of the Braxton Arista recordings, when I got to number 8, I recognized it as the fearsomely fast theme that had been recorded as "Cut 1, Side 1" on New York, Fall 1974. We negotiated that one successfully the second night, and I think it was at that point that Braxton started to think that having trombone instead of trumpet in the quartet might be a viable option."

Jason Guthartz said...

...and now that you've made me take another look at the credits for this session, I see I had erred in omitting track 6 from the tracks on which Mitchell plays (and solos!); it's now corrected.

centrifuge said...

jason, thanks very much for your several comments and elucidations...

ok, so: knowing that mitchell plays on comp. 59 makes things much clearer! that extraordinary alto solo does, indeed, sound a lot more like him than it does braxton - though of course b. had already spent a lot of time practising and refining (every conceivable variety of) extended technique, so i was happy to believe it was him, and i certainly was *not* prepared to credit any of the other reedmen with it...

...otherwise, i suppose i didn't do TOO badly, though it's interesting to look down that list and acknowledge that the sessions were rather more democratic than i thought (ahem)... admittedly the leader solos on every piece, and the others have to take what they can get - but that's only fair (and pretty much par for the course in such projects). some of the solos wouldn't even have struck me as solos at all, but then the lines between composed and improvised material are often far from clear (esp. to a non-player like me), and this is very much the case in the more experimental pieces.

what i DO find quite a shock is the revelation that the flute/piano duet in comp. 57 features abrams, not rzewski... so much for THAT idea, i.e. the reference back to comp. 6(o)... oh well.

of course i now feel that i need to go and hear the whole thing again :-S

- but if i insisted on getting it "perfect" each time, before posting an article... i would never post anything at all. on the one hand, i have made far more of an effort this year to start *doing my best* (inspired my b's example)... and on the other, one has to draw the line somewhere! i do now allow myself to refer to liners, etc, usually after the actual listening session is over; but since in most cases i don't *have* access to the liners, this doesn't often make a huge difference ;-)

ubu xxiii said...

I don't what to add to the perceptiveness of the comments on the music, except that it sent me back to listen to the record again, and yeah, one of the advantages of a having a contract with a rich record company is having this kind of package, with a Frederick J.Brown painting on the cover, an inner sleeve with complete instrumentation, personnel, solo order & a bit of commentary from AB on each piece, fuller than the catalogue at the back of 'Forces in motion' but maybe not as comprehensive as the actual composition notes.
On the outer sleeve AB writes 'I have written briefly on each composition with the hope that even a structural analysis can give the listener some idea as to how I conceived the compositions'.
If people are interested, I could post some of these here. Maybe people will want to wait till the Mosaic CD set comes out. That should be fully annotated.
Some contemporary context of this attempt to write for a post-bop large ensemble with room for improvising might be of some interest. Sam Rivers' 'Crystals' in whose early drafts AB was evidently involved, & George Russell's 'Living time' (1972) with Bill Evans, both attempt to create & maintain a number of different musical narratives simultaneously, giving the idea of a multi-levelled structure. Russell said he was aiming at 'representing virtually all areas of music', whereas AB concentrates more on a kind of 'short story' approach, making each piece totally different, without the totalizing effect noticeable in Rivers (who's part of the reed section in 'Living time') & Russell.
On side 2, track 2 AB says he had Ellington in mind, but which side of Ellington, I wonder. There's another composer as many-sided as AB himself.

centrifuge said...

which side of ellington, indeed..? as you can see, i heard dolphy in that one - but then i tend to hear dolphy in a lot of things ;-)

ubu, thanks as always for your thoughts - interesting comments about rivers and russell; i don't know either of those albums but they do appear to represent a very different approach, from what you say.

also, as you may have gathered, i don't own the actual creative orch. album myself and had never seen the liners (or for that matter the cover!). jason did email me b's potted descriptions of the pieces though. naturally, it's always illuminating to see what the composer himself had in mind... i didn't put these up here myself though, feel free to do so if it's convenient for you - like you say, presumably all of the notes will be reproduced when the mosaic box comes out... whenever that is, exactly..!