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

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- 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 nor is this version the final one, although in theory the piece has been superseded by now - comp. 40(o) has been in the repertoire for at least two years at this point, but the earlier repetition series, the first of its type, is a piece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

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... 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.)

1 comment:

centrifuge said...

the hemingway interview:

and the album itself, another recent offering on sol:

... this was actually the last (by some way) of the week two articles to be written... two more still to come