Friday, June 27, 2008

gtm wednesday, part two

[more thoughts and observations from a day full of gtm - as they occurred to me, and some specific to the pieces in question, some more general]

3. 1120 - comp. 192

restructures link

- the effect of this performance is just pure delight - it has me smiling from ear to ear, long before it gets to any actual funny bits (and there are some of those). so it comes about that today, right there and then, i learn first-hand what i've heard before plenty of times, namely that smiling can make you feel better: it's not just about emotions or mood, it can elevate all the muscles of the neck and chest, lift the heart and lungs completely clear of the abdomen... the accompanying space is in turn felt joyously by the heart. (well... admittedly i've had trouble reproducing those exact feelings since then! but it happened spontaneously on the day.)

- the two of them are so synchronised in their attacks and inflections, not just their notes, that the trance state is in full effect right away. (somehow this is the key to it, the synchronising of attack - we know the notes don't have to be the same, since some of the pieces are written using b's diamond clef.) newton's voice manages to sound simultaneously loose to be the point of being vague, and yet astonishingly precise - i find myself imagining her to be completely scatty in her private life! this is how the voice comes across to me, and yet at the same time she sounds as if she could split a hair into two, four, eight, sixteen with that same voice, and without breaking sweat. this combination of qualities, of course, makes her an ideal interpreter for braxton.

- after a while newton drops out and then we do actually have that anomaly, a solo gtm recital... but then this (solo) is not part of the main fabric, it's rather a happening, an outgrowth, a capsule - for the first time i find myself seeing the gtm compositions as being like hotels or museums or galleries, large buildings filled with rooms, so numerous that one visit can only take in so many at a time, and the permutations for subsequent visits are endless: some of the larger ensembles are so detailed that the separate rooms contain not just their own furniture but totally individual decor, no two are alike. and for this reason each performance will be different, guaranteed...

- later a megaphone (or something similar) makes me think of george lewis, and again i smile right away...

- one of the rooms in this building is a crystal cave, fully constructed here just by the two players (b. on flute at this point, and newton using bells and/or finger percussion)... spellbinding :))

- the honks and bangs and such sound so well-placed, when they arrive... netwon supplies most of these of course, but b. joins in for a while with some duck noises... and is that then a child's toy keyboard newton is playing??

so much ground seems to be covered, and in so little time... "time": just listening to this music, indeed, makes one rethink one's concept of time again and again.

4. 1235 - comp. 343

restructures link

[i am now fully engaged in the sorting process described in part one... it's pretty much taken me this long to get round to starting it! so the earlier sections of this - a concert which i saw live and can therefore relive in my mind's eye, in any case - are closer to being pure background music than the previous discs]

- thb is a worthy heir to the esteemed "braxbrass" tradition - wheeler, lewis, ray anderson, hugh ragin, roland dahinden etc etc - but surely he is closest to lewis in spirit: he really is a perfect foil for the leader. mary halvorson, too, works really well here, her relationship to the music being something i didn't grasp very well at the time of the concert. (the music, and my understanding of it, seems to change every time i hear it - though this session isn't the best example! still, it makes me realise the extent to which i was not able to take in what was really happening, at the time of the concert - despite my being on the edge of my seat, pretty much, and fully focussed... i just wasn't experienced enough to be able to follow what was unfolding before me.)

- by the end, with electronics in use, the sound is truly unearthly. the leader's solos, too, are more amazing each time i hear them - i remember the speed and articulation impressing me at the time, but my ear was not yet able to appreciate the subtle shadings which b. layers over his basic sound... in truth, these moments are probably the only ones which claim my full attention on this occasion, but they're enough..!

5. 1345 - comps. 185 and 186

restructures link

- endless pictures, endlessly changing! the sound is like a kaleidoscope, always folding back in on itself and presenting new patterns, textures... by the time the whole sextet is playing, there's an entire carnival on display.

- pain takes over for later parts of this session, distracting me from everything else. it seems to be particularly keyed into dahinden's trombone, with its low throbbing (much in evidence in the latter parts of this album) - but eventually it clears, as the piece moves towards resolution.

- in contrast to my first impressions of this album, some of the later parts (when i am able to focus on the music) seem "slow", relatively static, though the pace of the second composition is slightly faster than the first. it's as if they have coalesced somehow, during the performance... or that's the limit of my attention today...

* * *

(part three still to come)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

braxtothon '08: session 007

- as reported elsewhere, i originally intended to skip this album, changing my mind only very shortly before the week two sessions. it is the sort of thing i had in mind to cover later as a detour, and i had planned to save time by concentrating solely on the various lewis collaborations from this year. but i'm glad i saw sense! i've been musing on and off for ages now about the precise nature of the connection between braxton and dolphy, and although some of my conclusions are being saved for the forthcoming article examining (some aspects of) the derivation of b's alto style, this album, heard at this time, really helped my thinking on the subject.

session 007: duets 1976 (with muhal richard abrams)
date: 1st/2nd august 1976

restructures link

it's not difficult to guess why i found myself thinking about dolphy straight away: the album opens with his greatest hit, his one contribution to the modern songbook (though some flute exponents are understandably fond of "gazzelloni") - "miss ann", the tricky, rhythmically-counterintuitive fourteen-bar theme which dolphy unveiled with booker little on the far cry album. just the choice of material gets me thinking: why this one? would we not expect b. to choose something weirder, farther out than this? but it is at least a little bit of a challenge - not that we'd expect b. to trip up over something like this, certainly not by now, but it was played very briskly by dolphy and little, and b. takes it more or less full pace too, on alto (obviously - no point in shying away from it), the diference being that here the accompaniment is cut right back to basics, abrams providing at first just a few sparsely dissonant chords and the skeleton of a rhythmic pulse, i.e. exactly the sort of accompaniment b. tends to like when he turns to playing tunes.

the alto solo begins with a pause and a reflective ballad phrase (which alone is enough to situate what follows within a long tradition), then at once breaks into explicit dolphyisms. the loping line which begins with a flurry at 0.37 and concludes with a braxton master-tag at 0.41 has dolphy's well-known paired-up skipping rhythm as it winds down and back up the scale, notes holding hands together in an innocent way; it does not yet introduce wide interval leaps (which are in any case more effective on bass clarinet), but it's clearly characteristic of dolphy - while simultaneously making it clear that this going to be dolphy-as-filtered-through-braxton, a continued tradition which looks in both directions.

- right here i could probably stop for a day or two of complete silence, to let everyone take that last bit in... hard to overstate its importance. now, assuming you just paused for a week of solemn contemplation, back to "miss ann" ;-)

the lines of b's solo continue to quote dolphy semi-literally, that is they sound for the most part as if dolphy could have played them but they're not like outright references. the other thing, of course, is that b. sometimes chooses, sometimes declines to ornament the lines with inventions of his own, and from the 1.00 min mark onwards tends increasingly to use his own (rushed or languid) rhythms rather than dolphy's as such. by doing all this he is making clear what he inherited from dolphy as well as demonstrating the two main ways in which he extends that heritage, as a soloist that is: his approach to rhythm is a great deal more subtle and imaginative than dolphy's, and his syllabic vocabulary is bigger (but then for b. it was probably a conscious intention early on that he should develop the largest vocab base ever assembled, this not having been a priority for dolphy, who was content to add in "non-musical" sounds for effect when it pleased him, without necessarily wanting to explore the full multiplicity of these sounds in any systematic way).

of course the "birdcall" effect is the other aspect of this shared inheritance, and the apparently random quality of phrases such as the rising trill beginning at 2.17, then peaking and signing off with a startled leap upwards and a return to earth, could theoretically cite any number of precedents, playful altoists including (of course) bird himself as well as dolphy, also cannonball adderley springs to mind - b's desire to sing above all gives rise to these spontaneous expressions of joy, though not all listeners are able to appreciate that that is what they're hearing.

round the 2.30 mark and onwards, we are fully through dolphy and into braxton now.

abrams' solo remains tangential and abstracted, but manages to pay homage to another participant in the original recording, jaki byard (whose natural affinity with dolphy seems surprisingly misunderstood by some free jazz/improv listeners). this is suggested to me by abrams' ragtime-meets-chromatic/rubato approach - he also cues up the restatement with the same simple chords byard used to set up the trade-offs between dolphy and little in the original, though abrams typically holds back a little in his rhythmic placement. that's all i can say about the piano really (serious dog hassle at this point in the original session), but it's probably just about all that needs to be said, in terms of setting the tone for this hearing of the album. (the word byard would do it!)

the remainder of the side comprises two braxton compositions, just in case we got sidetracked for a minute into anticipating a whole album of dolphy. that's not how it works, not usually, not with this man who likes to contemplate several layers of meaning at once.

comp. 60 is specified as a duet for clarinet and piano, but it sounds at first almost as if it would rather be a synth piece. not a problem, in any case, because abrams is the kind of pianist that knows how to break sound up as well as knit it together, and early on in the piece he establishes that we're heading once more for the outer limits by giving us lots of low end and sustain pedal, creating great clashing blocks of sound which roil turbulently beneath b's whipcrack-speed clarinet calls. when he's not doing this, abrams is pecking away at the same neurotic attacks as the composer, obsessive staccato phrases which braxton intersperses with long, held notes of tensile beauty, thus establishing this piece as one of his "outer ballad landscapes", so to speak - but you have to bear in mind that b's understanding of the term "ballad" will have undergone a lot more deconstruction than most people's. this is a narrative piece but it's not a relaxing or soothing ride. on the contrary, sudden knockings at the gates are a basic feature of this deep and involving piece - by two minutes the ambience is so familiar to me by now, for all its unsettlingly qualities, that i start to drift happily, only to be roused sharply by more insistent banging from abrams. it's all very macbeth, but then shakespeare is (as some of us have observed before) a pretty useful and fertile comparison.

b's winding, plaintive-yet-thoughtful clarinet, of course, brings us back towards dolphy territory again, even without the wide interval jumps which crop up from time to time. in the middle of the piece, after abrams' solo, braxton launches out into his own while the piano continually reminds us not to stop watching over our shoulder as we go - and of course the basic tonal texture of the instrument (even though b. cunningly avoids using the same weapon as dolphy in this case, at least for solo purposes - he always goes either higher or lower) itself recalls dolphy, and the warped and weird landscapes do too. neither of them would lay claim to getting there first - mingus had already got there with "eclipse" (of course) and was drawing on explicit influences himself - but dolphy loved to hang out in these alien landscapes and braxton simply rejoices in them, can't seem to get enough of them in which to explore and find himself.

at some point during the piece it occurs to me (not for the first time) how much b. must miss playing with pianists when he doesn't have one around. well, he always makes up for lost time when he finds one to play with...

at other points, as i so frequently am, i'm reduced to words like "lovely". the "falling rain" effect, which b. likes so well (used by abrams before, also corea), reappears here in the sixth minute, this time prompting a sudden rush of acceleration, b's entries becoming faster and tinier, ever more precise, abrams following suit, culminating in an unexpected unison just before 7.00, one of several written phrases which are scattered through the piece - all of them recur, or nearly recur - ? the haunting, ringing call which is played thrice from 8.35ish - it's so identifiably braxton that i might have heard it a hundred times before, or perhaps never... this man is just filled with magical calls, long and complex hooked keys, which burrow deeply into my ear and slot into place, in order to pull me headfirst into his soundworld. so at this point i am celebrating dolphy without missing him, as some do, because this explorer here has access to the same outlying territories dolphy offered, and he can supply any number of detailed maps.

comp. 40p is something really extraordinary, it being (despite its typically winding, snaking line) the nearest thing to a funky blues piece that b. has ever written, to my knowledge - but by funky blues i mean something very down-and-out-there, brisk and happening, and at the same time the sort of blues that would normally be sung by a very old man who's seen more than his fair share of life and of human sin. so it is that the voice chosen is a contrabass sax, for a change, this instrument just working its way into the recorded music this year. and the support from the piano is a single line from the left hand, making this another monophonic line piece (among other things), the spare and edgy piano adding significantly to the vaguely menacing atmosphere, prodding away at the beat which impatiently marks the time between excursions along the winding staircase.

the solo really goes to some hair-raising places, and for once this is fully to do with the combined sound of the two instruments (this duet is not a specified duo exploration, rather a small group piece stripped down to bare essentials): the contrabass sax is tonally pretty limited, especially when compared to its clarinet cousin, and it's mainly the forcefulness of the very lowest notes which thrills from b's direction (sustained low notes producing minor earth tremors in the listening space); but abrams' accompaniment, cycling round and round from single notes through octaves to simple chords and then simple dissonances, seems to gather momentum each time round and his stabbing entries create a lot of tension, which in turn allows the solo to continue, limited tonal and timbral palette or not. actually abrams goes far beyond just jacking up the tension: by 2.40 he is creating an almost "church choral" effect, so that this little miniature offers us a full cast of demons and angels.

this is one of those pieces with a restatement midway through and another at the end, so we go back there in between the two solos, and then they switch places. of course this time the effect is limited, abrams picking away at single-note lines while braxton accompanies him, but not even the master can squeeze any sort of multiphonics out of this unwieldy beast, leaving him just bumping flatulently along with the basic pulse while abrams takes off to explore some of the less-advertised suburbs of the blues. although by now i'm being reminded of mal waldron (yet another piece of dolphy-continuity there), this "reverse" combination is far more likely to run out of steam quickly and sure enough, they don't leave it too long before bringing it round to the theme again. and the theme reminds us: this is basically just another one of b's sidewinders, sly, knowing themes which crop up all over the place at this time (perhaps he laid this ghost with the terrific comp. 52, but several similar themes are to be found in the 40 series) - but done this way, which no-one could really have foreseen, it becomes something unique and special. so here's another point on which to end a para: even when some idea of b's doesn't quite come off (and i'm not sure this does, fully), i'm more interested to hear it than i would be a lot of people's successes.

* * *

side two (and there is a little pause for me in between, the lp sides on different discs) opens with another quite strange choice. "maple leaf rag" was actually the only piece i regretted putting on a playlist, since although the opening theme kept getting lodged in my head, the piece itself is quite stiflingly formal: one section which repeats (with embellishments), a second section which repeats, end. very limited wiggle room in there too, this being a remarkably straight reading of mr joplin's old museum piece. so on the playlist, i tended to get a bit bored with it after the devilishly catchy first theme was done, but today, i find myself looking at it differently.

and i reach two conclusions: first, that in doing what he would not normally do, i.e. give a dead-straight reading of a standard, b. is making a point, restoring to the late composer some of the dignity he was not permitted in life (being black and hence not eligible for consideration as a "composer" at all - our hero could tell you a thing or two about this prevalent attitude, which certainly did not die with scott joplin); and second, that he's also making another point about the relationship between himself and dolphy, by including a piece which the latter didn't play but could've done - in the final quarter of the piece, b's expostulations between written lines, the few snatches of improvisation to be found in this version, are very straightforwardly dolphyesque, in a way that b's playing usually isn't. i'm not claiming to understand exactly what these points are, but they leave me with plenty to think about, where previous hearings of this piece have just left me slightly bemused.

comp. 62 is in some ways reminiscent of 60, on side one - the pieces are related, two of three duo compositions for one wind instrument and piano (comp. 61 has never been recorded..!) - the similarities including the neurotic and obsessive basic soundscape, and the persistent use of "birdcalls", these haunting melodic tags which crop up so often; indeed this once again strikes me as being basically a reflective ballad, with many precedents already by this time, but it's of a more open and complex form than some. then again, b's "perfect ballad twin" has left now, so the ballad writing itself must change a little to reflect that. but this piece, in the end, has to be played several times before i get through it undisturbed - and i still don't feel as if i really got it. two things i did notice about it: one, every so often we get a very effective "knockout", a sort of dadadadadada - wham, like a series of jabs to set up a right cross (this the sort of metaphor which would not usually come to mind in connection with this player, but that's how it seems to me); and two, for the vast majority of its length this piece, which incorporates several changes of horn, is all notes. for minutes on end there are no blurred or distorted attacks from the leader at all, he's even remarkably restrained when the monster comes out to play (though it can't resist showing off how much more versatile it is than its bumbling saxophone cousin, and purrs with smug pleasure around five minutes). oh yes, and it finishes up quite wittily.

and this brings us to the final track - and the final surprise, since surely no-one by now was expecting braxton to deliver a straight-up "love hymn" and name it after his wife, as others had done - yet that's what he did, albeit abrams is credited with co-writing it. how very unexpected: abrams, still working in outside tonalities from the start, nonetheless manages to evoke the sort of quiet, intelligent appreciation of beauty that someone like wayne shorter might deal in - and in fact the melody line reminds me rather of shorter too, another haunting theme, and played with an appealingly dry, unsentimental tone.

so, yet again i'm back with dolphy, because he loved this sort of thing, and out there, the dolphy album which this one most closely seems to resemble, ends with "feathers" (by dolphy's friend hale smith), in many ways a very similar tune on which to close. but really "nickie" is in the lineage of (crepuscule with) "nellie" and "naima", so - this my final thought about dolphy, as the album winds down - perhaps b. not only gives us (and his lady) an unlooked-for gift, he also says something for dolphy which the latter never had time to say for himself, writes the love paean that dolphy never wrote (yet surely would have, had he returned from europe).

* * *

so that's that... in various ways and on different levels, braxton seems to me to be linking himself to dolphy with this album, as well as demonstrating the extent to which he himself has gone further. the choice of material does seem telling: "miss ann", though a pleasing enough tune and undoubtedly not the easiest head to play, is exactly the sort of thing misha mengelberg will have visibly sniffed at in '64 (he admits in the interview by dan warburton that he was unable to conceal his low opinion of the american's writing (*), especially compared to his playing); and "maple leaf rag", for all its wit, is rather stiff and formal. hence the two pieces tactfully suggest some of dolphy's limitations; yet at the same time, the rag takes us right back, beyond the tacky old standards dolphy himself liked to revive, to a main source of the chemistry between dolphy and his playmate byard (no wonder that '64 mingus tour is so good). the leader's originals take us to some of dolphy's outposts, and leave them far behind, pushing out effortlessly into the vast desert. in the case of 40p, the theme is virtually "miss ann", now i stop to think of it - but twisted and recast in an entirely new form, one with great scope for all kinds of emotional connotations, a world away from the ingenuous nonchalance of dolphy's piece.

finally(ish) - this is far from a tribute album to dolphy or anyone else, so b. cleverly avoids using the flute at all on this date, despite programming two surreal balladscapes. cleverly, because b's flute is generally the instrument on which he sounds most dolphyesque anyway, both of them at their most fragile and vulnerable on it (sounds obvious to say that about the flute; but then think of rahsaan, rivers, james newton, robert dick etc etc). in any case, in terms of multi-instrumentalism, braxton is already starting to look like some many-handed demigod, he has nothing more to prove on that score.

grading is even more ridiculous than usual: i am so tempted to say CCCC but don't feel, every time i think about this (spent some days with this album crashing around my head like a stormcloud trapped in a valley), that it can be justified. and besides, i haven't resolved whether comps. 60 and 62 are too similar to work on the one album, or if i just wasn't up to the job on the second one, for some reason... but fuck it, this is my (imperfect) blog and by this point i am assuming i'm addressing serious fans of the man's work. if you haven't heard it, you gotta - a very detailed look at the different levels of b's thought is possible, using this album as a filter...

* see comments.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

gtm wednesday, part one

i'm on holiday this week. no big plans or commitments. mrs c is at work for most of it - normally this set of circ's would compel the word braxtothon. but not quite yet, as it turns out: that project has been stalled for some time behind the scenes (and back to snail pace on the blog for that reason, among others). never mind the details right now... it'll be back, but meanwhile: what i do have to undertake, starting now, is a full sort (triage) of all our books, videos, records etc etc, the first such since two young hoarder-collectors got together and pooled their collections, along with most other things.

just let that one sink in for a minute...

we've recently gone through a lot of our stuff and have been able to lose more than half of it, and sure enough the same principle is holding true, just about, for the "hard media" of art and entertainment, boxes and boxes and boxes of it - boxes which have themselves moved house several times and were even in storage for months on end at one point (while the photos were being taken..., and afterwards). anyway, now is the time... boxes are emerging and their contents being ruthlessly examined under the karate-chop judgement of the small intestine (*1) - none of it was just thrown in there in the first place, every single item is there for a reason, but yes indeed, looked at afresh there are more rejects than keepers. (so much for the books and videos anyway... the records, fuck, i can't even bring myself to get in there yet, get my hands wet... those boxes are definitely gonna be done last. *2)

cue gtm day... hell let's open it out in the fresh air: ghost trance music day. 18th june... it's been coming for a while now but the timing had to be just right. this (yesterday) morning, staggering out into the world to walk the dogs in pouring summer rain, and in severe pain (*3), i made the decision that the time had come: once the car was out of the drive, coffee on, gtm on the stereo for the next nine hours. no, this wasn't about deep and focussed listening - just about filling the house with it, inhabiting it. i had plenty of stuff to be getting on with... but was determined to operate according to my own schedule.

first piece was easy to choose: starting with the 2001 tentet would be less overwhelming than introducing it later, when i'd presumably be better placed to hear the individual voices... the rest were selected during the first play, running order worked out ad hoc each time.

there follows a few thoughts from each... a few, not many!

* * *

1. 0930 - comp. 286 (+147-20-69d-256-173-6j-162-23a) - disc one (link - trs. 1-2)

- two things hit me very fast: one, the wonderful lack of reverence brought by these musicians to b's formidable music - he himself must have been delighted with it. there is a marvellous "air of the junkyard" about proceedings, with all that implies (and more). two, what braxton has worked very hard to do above all in ALL his music, since he began, is to foster (and oversee) an atmosphere in which every utterance can be beautiful, and is thereby "permissible" - there really is no such thing as a wrong note, even in playing a written line (mistakes are welcomed and indeed demanded!)

- the music just *happens* - the group quickly becomes (collectively/severally) a conduit or channel

- gtm structures in general are musical portal keys, providing instant translocation to other spaces for those who are attuned to listen. (it does require attunement, for most of us; in my case the attuning process is some way behind me now.) these other spaces are (of course) nurturing, supportive environments; so that even the most violent and dark of utterances can be unleashed at appropriate times, with many of the usual (socially-conditioned) negative associations removed from the experience of them - these are safe environments for examining any idea, or anything human, at any rate.

2. 1015 - comp. 338 (link - tr.1)

for ten players down to four, and now four of us on the sofa, me digesting my breakfast quietly and three slumbering dogs...

- rumble, rumble. aaron siegel was recently described (by a blogger) as not a virtuoso, though mr braxton disagrees with that assessment (see liners for this album). in any case, he's a very suitable player for b's music... at the start of this piece both the piano and drumset sound as if they're being heard through cottonwool, but i'm inclined to think that this muffled quality to the sound is probably deliberate. (utter sharpness and clarity later on reassures me of this.)

- early on, siegel and max heath make sort of "clockwork" noises together - we know by now that this will be a highly inventive encounter and with added levels of complexity supplied by the piano... the way the players then "fall around" each other (without quite interlocking) in some of the written theme sections is delightful :)

- again, within this sort of context b. can explore the harshest sounds imaginable and they are clearly presented as beauty

- later on, within the space of a minute or two the four players wind ineluctably from "lovely, soft, gorgeous" theme-building to the most intense mayhem - and back, to faint waves crashing on distant shores, a familiar sound in b's music going back at least as far as 1971 (and probably to the beginning) - during the transition from sweetness to hurricane to deep (murmuring) sleep, there was never a sense that any harsh change had taken place, each second clicks into the next as if we're observing a huge and very complex conveyor; that is, again, the music happens through the medium of the band, which itself is therefore witnessing the process, as well as participating in it

- the waves crashing does cue up a break, though, a climax, and then we're back to the main theme... later on, some "fragmented" playing with very sparse voicings is great, reminds me of the way in which it is possible to do this stuff even in duet (though not solo, i think - at least two voices are required for the trance effect, the translocation ticket... or so it seems to me at the moment)

by the time the piece (63 mins) is over, it feels as if it's been on for about a week... i am of course busy with other stuff, so in theory the time would fly by...

* * *

parts two and three to come... next it's back to the braxtothon, and to the regular tour itinerary at that... those of you who want to get in the spirit of things, maybe start having a think about the link(s) between braxton and dolphy..!

* see comments

Thursday, June 12, 2008

braxtothon '08: unscheduled stop #1

the guys at inconstant sol were talking about this for a week or so before kinabalu eventually presented his mp3 version - and in the meantime i'd only been checking in, say, three or four times a day ;-) this is the quintet that wasn't, a one-off (? see below) grouping which is circulating as moers, 6/6/76, a concert which the festival's official archive fails to list at all. in fact the quartet with kenny wheeler is listed for that year, which surely cannot have been the case. this latter suspicion is rather strongly backed up by the discovery that the following day's duet partner is officially listed as leo smith... look, we know it was george lewis, we have the album to prove it and you guys actually released it.

anyway... check out this line-up: wheeler and lewis, harry miller and tony oxley?? yep, i'm in... now, this (anecdotal - all the details such as date, venue must be taken with a pinch of salt i suppose) line-up raised eyebrows all over when rumour first reached us in this corner of the blogosphere - but jason guthartz was able very quickly to dig out a reference to a quintet with the two brassmen and oxley touring europe, albeit with raphael garrett on bass (see comments). this minor bombshell threatened to blow a large-ish hole in my slowly-rising conceptual edifice of braxtonia. i've recently suggested that wheeler was out of the band as if whisked away cartoon style, on the end of a lasso attached to a mustang. ok, not quite, and i've already posted the creative orch. review, so i've acknowledged that he didn't entirely leave the music behind. even so, the new knowledge that both brass players did the euro festival circuit (i'm guessing that's what it means) together in a quintet, and with oxley (only represented in b's official discog by one album recorded in 1989) too! - well, never mind oxley for a minute and never mind the question of the face of the bass, if wheeler played a blinder, how will that leave me feeling? pretty red-faced.

in the event, and almost inevitably, just pulling the files takes three attempts and by that time i've lost both the energy and the space to listen to it, but i did quickly go through it looking for a track rundown, and had no trouble identifying the last two numbers, comps. 6f and 6i. the first - mmm, sounded familiarish but no, have to come back to that. but in the end, a suitable time slot didn't present itself until 72 hrs after i got hold of the recording, and by that time i'd decided that although the posited date designates this as a step back in time for me, that's really ok, i've only skipped forward a few months and in terms of what's been posted on the blog, i'm only one day ahead. it's irresistible: this would be first heard under braxtothon conditions or at least interlude conditions, pref. with notes, etc. and the way this week panned out, the night before an unexpected one-day "holiday" (in the last week of may) ended up being the perfect chance to do my first late-night braxtothon session.

* * *

the programme: this has got to be a festival presentation, surely, wherever it is. even if it did tour... the first piece, whatever it is (not only did i not identify it, i lost faith in its familiarity once i was actually listening to it) has the sound of a featurette, seemingly picked or even written to make sense of wheeler's being "back" in the group, but though it is episodic, unwinds in story/playscript style and is all very high-end, it rather lacks gravitas for such an exalted line-up. it's lengthy, almost 25 mins, and the music changes character fairly dramatically before we reach the second index point inserted by the editor/dime seeder, but i would be happy to believe that it's all one piece. maybe :) - from there, in any case, we go (very) quickly through a transition phase and straight into a very interesting, nine-minute fancy-dress version of 6f, an obvious choice for all sorts of reasons - any thoughts of it being a lazy choice would be obliterated by what they do with it though; and finally we get a classic from the past revived, a number on which wheeler enjoyed himself in 1971 in london, a hard-driving swinger into the bargain so that oxley gets to show his skills as a jazz drummer, not "just" a free percussive genius, so to speak. comp. 6i is, indeed, the reason i decided i really had to cover this gig: i only realised very recently that the number was played at graz in october '76, and that delighted me, as i'm such fan of the piece (as i've said several times!), so finding that it was actually revived earlier in the year, well... too much, man, as they used to say. and as for what happens with this - ok, suffice it to say that despite my eventual uncertainty about the lasting validity of the line-up (as anything other than a special "party-time" arrangement), no-one would've been walking out of there without a shell-shocked yet shit-eating grin, shurely. yes, it's well worth hearing!

the band: definitely wheeler, definitely lewis (though it's startling to hear him so subdued for so much of the "opening feature") - and i don't feel i'm sticking my neck too far out by saying that's definitely oxley: just a few mins into the first piece we hear what sounds like small, very precisely shaped cymbals being struck with whipcrack speed, and terrific accuracy - just the sound of the small cymbals is enough to have me thinking "europe" anyway, certainly back then in the 70s, and although similar sounds can be heard from, say, paul lovens, this really sounds like oxley to me. besides, quite a lot of the set ends up being played in fast free jazz tessitura and we need a drummer who can do shit-hot jazz as well as advanced percussive wizardry. not everyone knows oxley has that in his arsenal, possibly, and i haven't heard too much of it myself - but that album with tony coe was a belter.

now, the bassist: bass isn't my number one instrument, much as i love it and its masters (and mistresses, not that there are many, as far as i'm aware... but joëlle léandre must count for at least five) - all i can say during/after the session with certainty is that whoever this is, it's someone really good - and someone with a very unconventional approach, so that although the arco work is "good enough" to be him, this definitely isn't dave holland, it's a totally different way to use the bow, just equally confident and precise; because i am usually listening more closely to reeds, etc, i have limited room in my memory for stylistic traits, giveaways etc of bassists as of yet; but this is someone really very good, so if i were told it's barre phillips, or peter kowald, or barry guy or maarten altena i would probably believe it in each case without questioning it much. and miller - ? i guess he's never been the focus of my attention, even on his own albums where there has been serious distraction in the form of saxes, trombones etc - hmm, actually i did listen to a duet album but i guess it didn't get full attention, that one... still, i remember he struck me at the time as being excellent, plus i've always liked him with brötzmann, and if he was good enough to "replace" johnny dyani in mcgregor's setups then... let's face it, he was probably pretty good.

but in any case i don't think i've even heard raphael garrett (who is supposed to have been on the tour), so... can't be sure really. [still, what i *can* do is (eventually) go straight to the source, dig out in conference and stick it on, not hear any arco at all on the first number but get totally sidetracked by an extraordinary clarinet solo by willem breuker; a bit more digging turns up some very good bass stuff and it sounds as if it could well be him: very springy fingers, and he does like his swathes and smears with that bow in his hand. huge, fat, ringing pizzicato tones as well, almost like a bass guitar at times - both recordings are notable for the super-confident cockeyed excellence of the bass... i'm gonna assume it's miller until someone persuades me otherwise.]

* * *

why this isn't a proper session: a) by the time i got round to it, it was already getting on for three a.m. - and though i felt ok, and the music soon perked me up anyway, i had some trouble staying focussed at times; b) i then followed up with triotone by braxton/szabados/tarasov (listed like that in alph.order on the cover, and that's a fair reflection overall - though on the feature-length piece by the pianist, our man is very much relegated to third status at the heart of the composition... though he is given a lovely tribute in exchange, and in any case gets to involve himself more fully in the later stages of the piece) - and i really enjoyed that too, really enjoyed it, so that by the time i finally went to bed the birds were out and it was practically light - but it's nothing to do with the 'thon at all, and wildly out of sequence if it were. oh, and c) no timings in this case, different cd player; headphones required for obvious reasons.

very nice. now what about the bloody music?? the beginning of the set, with its languid, hovering phrases and nimble skips and jumps in between, really does sound very familiar - though as i say, this sense of familiarity diminishes somewhat as the long first piece unfolds. (later i decide that i'm most reminded of the opening to comp. 59, the "two soloists" piece which closes the creative orch. album; but whatever else this is, it's surely not that - though it maybe does have some points in common with it.) the tonality, as one might generally expect by now, is very open, and there is almost a free improv flavour to proceedings as everyone gets going. but the first thing that really catches my attention: within a few minutes, braxton has cut loose, ripping into what would normally be an alto solo - except that lewis joins in. is there no limit to this young man's self-confidence? in any case this bit doesn't last long, wheeler enters too and soon enough we are at a written section, a distinctive "tick-tock, tick-tock" four-note repeated phrase (that one would think would be easy enough to identify) - round about here is when i first decide that it's definitely oxley.

the music is still rather uncertain, still very open, the drumset just one more instrument - no hint of a beat or pulse at this stage as the two brass players scurry around and b. re-enters on sopranino; and that in turn hijacks my attention completely, the familiar combination of ultra-fast staccato phrases interspersed with even faster legato runs never ceasing to impress the hell out of me, however often i hear it. the leader signs off his solo with a brief quote from holland's "q&a"... and returns soon enough on what sounds like clarinet. i still can't tell much about the nature of the composition itself. there is a sort of "singing" section, with the vaguely eastern melodies which b. seems to like, and this part apparently recurs, possibly the best way b. can think of to use wheeler at this stage: it allows him to join the trumpet at the high end, weaving sinuously together (though not in ballad fashion as such)... but despite that confident start, lewis does seem rather subdued - there are longish periods where i just don't notice him (highly unusual). despite some superb playing all round (and wheeler doesn't sound out of his depth at all, or overawed), i never really manage to get a handle on this piece and end up unconvinced that the line-up really gels.

still, there is plenty to drool over in terms of the playing, at least - the bass is a constant distraction, always doing something unpredictable, never settling for rote patterns or licks, tremendously present the whole time it's playing. in the later stages of the opener, things get very heated and the pace really picks up, b. flying over the top of the chaotic bass and drums - at this point, both brassmen are left to stand and listen - and when b. finishes to ecstatic applause, we are straight into a remarkable bass solo, perversely knotty and discordant yet utterly compelling, as intense as the practice of a gifted child with no expectations of being overheard. when the bow comes out, we are treated to some fabulous scratches, skirls, divebombs eventually; and this bravura performance leads, in turn, to a brief ensemble transition phase as the track index moves on. within a minute or so we can hear comp. 6f beginning, faintly at first, almost a "fade-in" as the horns start to play the theme very briskly over a high, droning arco bass and snare-drum roll, gradually building in intensity. the latter two effects give a totally fresh feeling to this performance of the old warhorse, unlike any previous rendition i've heard.

lewis takes a short solo then, playing around the theme at first, never losing the fast pace, still sounding quite restrained initially but so assertive and distinctive for all that, eventually blatting out a couple of very powerful attacks which remind us what he can do; he halts completely, brings us back to the theme and we're off again. the remainder of the piece (of course) is not played the same way as the beginning, textures and colours come and go with bewildering rapidity, and that's normal, but i'm still left feeling that this is a completely new approach to this piece. towards the end, the bass almost disappears up into the stratosphere, so high and yet so controlled still that it holds all my attention and i miss b's initial re-entry (imagine that!); there ensues a sort of free-for-all, the theme gone west, lewis apparently cross-referencing comp. 23h for a few bars; and the five of them then wind down towards the next territory, the sound fully "grouped", all five musicians now very much on the same wavelength.

as the index advances again, b. is soloing on alto, but this is a very brief transition, the bass and drums both picking up the pace quickly; b. drops in a fragment of the comp. 6i theme and then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we are into the theme itself. miller apparently doesn't know it very well, so that as the theme moves into its middle phase, he stays on the same opening bass note instead of dropping down to counterbalance the harmony, add tension - but the wicked rhythmic drive of the original is very much in place, as the ensemble wraps up the theme and b. launches into what had to come sooner or later, tonight's instalment of the alto transmission.

this above all is where oxley shows us his skills as a jazz drummer, really tearing into this uptempo postbop number, one of my favourites among the creative ensemble books. and the leader, as usual, is on superb form, his execution pretty much flawless and breathtakingly confident, whether he's singing sweetly or flying at full pelt. several minutes in, he refers briefly to the theme, but this time it's not a sign-off, nothing of the sort; it's simply a dip of the cup into the well, and he's off and away again, in for the long haul. more minutes pass, and oxley does a strange thing: he hits a very simple beat, like a rock drummer indeed, and sits on it for a while, but this doesn't faze the leader who simply presses ahead, finally acknowledging the beat with a descending series of staccato pecks, before the beat itself is hurled away into the torrent of free jazz rhythm and b. climbs away from the wreckage with long, hovering, rising runs. he's close to peaking now, builds the intensity to almost unbearable levels and releases it in a series of scalding shrieks, before falling naturally away again and finishing up with another snatch of the theme.

lewis takes over, and right away he winds the pace down, unhurriedly trying a few bluesy, lyrical phrases, before coming to a complete halt (at this point there is another index, somewhat understandable but entirely redundant), resuming with a slow, shuffling version of the original rhythm. with this established, he revisits the theme himself, then suddenly picks the pace right up again, flying for a few bars, dropping back into the slow, almost parodic version of the theme and tearing away again. slow, fast, slow, fast, while the bass and drums remain locked into a slow groove behind him, lewis displays the ridiculously smooth and clean articulation which marked him out right from the start. more blues inflections, another breakdown, and another gradual count back in as the bass and drums pick up the slow shuffle again; and once again lewis teases the theme, slowly coaxing it out at lazy pace before ripping into the next section at maximum speed, the effect almost a pre-echo of the "accordion" tempo used for comp. 115 some years later. it's certainly a new take on this piece, and it's interesting that they've waited until the trombone solo to reveal it - the leader wanted full steam ahead, all the way. of course, the trombone is unusually well-equipped for expressing humour, and who better to sketch in some groucho marx eyebrows than this young man, swaggering with easy self-assurance? as the drums drop out but for a light time kept on a cymbal, and the bass diddle-iddles its way higher and higher up, lewis introduces extra breath to his playing, so precise and restrained, then briefly employs multiphonics, sparingly, yet in such a way as to leave us in no doubt of his extraordinary abilities on this most awkward of axes. and we're off and away, again - accompanied now just by a rampaging miller, the boy wonder continues his tour de force.

by this time, one could excuse the audience for forgetting that an alto solo had ever taken place. how amazing is that? but the rapturous applause when lewis finally signs off leave us in little doubt whose name will be on the audience's lips after this concert. somehow, wheeler is expected to follow that, but he's an old hand at standing and watching while marvels take place, and to do him justice he turns out a fine solo of his own, comfortable at pace for once, the drums and bass both hammering along again now, occasionally dropping in the two-beat riff from the mid-section of the theme just to refresh our memories (rather bizarrely, now that it's not needed, miller hits the correct lower note) - but as well as wheeler plays, as good as it is to hear him enjoying himself so much (and on one of the first numbers he played with braxton), you can sense that it isn't going to last long, the real business has already been transacted. sure enough, he concludes and oxley drives solo for a moment or two, then one by one the whole band is back in, indulging in another wild free-for-all before the inevitable final restatement. once again, miller levels out the tonality, obstinately refuses to hit that pedal tone, but this is the most minor of grumbles. similarly, the actual ending (they run right through the theme, instead of curtailing it as in the original) is a little sloppy, but who cares? not the audience, that's for sure. it's hard to imagine anyone going home unsatisfied tonight.

* * *

conclusions: that gigantic trombone solo says it all, really. just the fact that b. was (very uncharacteristically) willing to be upstaged in that way, happy to risk another player's performance being the lasting memory of the gig, tells us a great deal about the special qualities of his new sideman. and it's easy to understand why the leader wanted to show him off! what must the audiences back then have thought? never mind comparisons with mangelsdorff - or any other trombonist; when was the last time a young player on any instrument burst onto the scene so fully armed, so confident in his own outrageous abilities? tony williams, more than a decade earlier..? in any event, this is why i can't see this quintet line-up as anything other than a delightful one-off. wheeler represents the past here, and although it's great to hear him on such good form in his brief return to the band, the time and space allotted to lewis leaves no doubt about the voice of the immediate future.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

*birthday card*

short and sweet today, for a change ;-)

on this felicitous occasion, the 63rd anniversary of the birth of anthony braxton, i have just two things to say:



***many happy returns of the day!***