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.


centrifuge said...

* by the time of the notorious jazz times blindfold test, mengelberg had learned to softness his bluntness a little on this subject (while remaining ruthlessly candid on others, such as the one i rather hastily cited a while ago...). he still says that dolphy was "not yet" a composer, but adds that someone of his great natural talent could have learned. tellingly, he is immediately dismissive of the piece played (the aforementioned "feathers"), and does not recognise dolphy's alto voice until his solo begins.

this piece was "finished" more than two months ago now, having been the first of the main week two sessions to get written up. it also had a lot more work on it (during the actual writing) than any earlier posts. just a couple of tweaks were necessary by way of editing it. the handy side-effect of the braxtothon '08 train's spending more time in the sidings than out devouring countryside is that now i actually get a decent perspective on my own stuff *before* i publish it... i'm satisfied that there is more content and less psychedelic hysteria than there was in previous months..!

folly for to see what said...

Hi Cent!
I have to tell you, psychedelic hysteria or not all your texts are really interesting for me, even if I sometimes lose the train and need a translator. This is the most interesting place about Braxton I know. And the only one going so depth into his music.
Thanks for this.

And I want to ask you something, recently I've been blessed with a Dime's account, Yes a dime's account, after one year trying, and trying, and trying… I've downloaded several recordings, I think most are amazing, till my ratio has said STOP. Because I'm new I didn't know I needed to control these things. Anyway one of that recordings is a Solo Braxton recording in Daxberg, Germany 1983. I think you must have dime's account, so maybe you have it. I'd like to post that recording, a bit different Braxton than the one I Know, maybe more "quiet and long" sounds. Maybe not the best solo concert, but still good and different. The only composition I know, like the seeder is Coltrane's Impressions. I wonder if you can help me with compositions, you know I like to make some artwork, and I'd like to include that info if possible. that would be nice.
If you want and If you don't have the recording I can upload for you first.
My mail: follyfortoseewhat at I'll wait…
Thanks in advance Cent…
Oh and I hope you like Gratkowski! I think is a good concert…

Fuck me! some days I write english better than today, Sorry!

See you!

centrifuge said...

folly, thank you very much for your kind words. and please, don't apologise for your english -nothing wrong with it!

i'm going to mail you about the solo concert you mention, we'll see what we can work out... but for the record, no, i am not a dime user. i rely on other bloggers to put up the treasures they find there..!

P said...

Hi Cent!
I've sent an email to you with the link. Hope you can download without problems…

Thanks for write!

Oh! something has happened with my blog account, this is very strange. But I'm still Pablo, sorry, Folly, not "P".

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine a sequence of words which responds less to the music than this load of twaddle.A monkey tapping randomly would do better. When are you going to write about the music you hear, instead of contriving this appalling 'knowing' commentary. Asshole.

centrifuge said...

folly/"p" - looks like you've managed to create a new account for yourself..? anyway, thanks a lot for the link, i am just downloading that now and i'll get back to you about it by email. nice one :)

folly for to see what said...

Hi Cent!
I wondered if the link work fine.
And it's true, don't know how now I have two accounts, i think I did that when had problems with access to my blog.
Do you know how can I change the mail to enter my blog? Now is the wrong one! I feel a bit stupid, ten years working with internet and I can't do that!
See you!

bumsuckstreets said...

Keep going Cent....

bumsuckstreets said...

Ah....this blog is actually accepting my strange to hear reactions and internal dialogue about music I do not know....and am possibly never likely too....due to lack computer nous....I think its great that you do this (and I mean that what ever other motives may be there, it has a level which is 100% for yourself....and thats good). Especially as it is always there for a sticato writer and thinker about writing....I see a richness in it, originality of language, and a strange and complicated soul at the helm....Tim....jqmrsiiz

centrifuge said...

tim - and what an interesting ID it is..! - thank you very much for your comments, i shall take what you said to heart as a true compliment... you're right of course, on one level it is entirely for me (and for my education), something which sustained me during the winter doubts, before i was given another, more persuasive (not better) reason to continue... in a way it's especially interesting to receive detailed feedback from people who have no connection with the music (as i presume you don't..?)

if your ears are burning right now, it's possibly because a few people are roundly cursing you for encouraging me, mistakenly thinking that i might otherwise shut up and go away and cease being an irritation in their lives... the thing is, for all sorts of reasons i've aired here before, i fully understand why people might take an instant dislike to me (esp. to cent as such) - the question is, are they able to be honest with themselves, enough to see their own image in the ugly face which they immediately detest and recoil from, on view here..?

ubu xxii said...

Cent, I'm catching up with catching up here, & these are only the sketchiest of notes.
'Maple leaf rag' may on Braxton's part be an attempt to nod at (to?) tradition, like way back, analogous to Dolphy's version of 'Jitterbug waltz.'
The contrabass sax doens't have a more limited range than contrabass clarinet as such; the pitch of officially playable notes might not be so big, but high harmonics, multiphonics are more plentifully available the lower a wind instrument gets (Mats Gustafsson?), and I think Braxton is applying some self-restraint here. The almost Basie-like riffs in the opening theme are before too long subverted by the piano wandering into tangentially related harmonic territory (substitutions, maybe, or was it written?), less straight ahead than it seems. I suppose Abrams hadn't started playing synthesizer at this stage.
Interesting to look back at Braxton's 1st record date 'Levels & degrees of light' by Abrams & forward to Basel 1979, where Abrams is back in a quartet context.
Will you be covering Roscoe Mitchell's duos with Braxton on Sackville (1977)? One side of the LP is all AB compositions, & flute features a fair bit.

centrifuge said...

hi ubu (xxii? you've shed a digit! on a diet?) - thanks for your thoughts as always... and to answer in no particular order:

- i never did have a copy of levels and degrees, just recently found one online... not yet listened to it though! as for basel, that's actually 1977, and a quintet... it will be covered in due course :)

- yes, i will be covering the sackville duets (despite having told kinabalu when he posted it on sol that i wasn't going to! changed my mind, long since...)

- i'll have to take your word for it about the contrabass sax/lower pitched instruments in general... though it doesn't sound to me as if b. is holding back here, more as if he's actually up against the limits of what he could do with the beast at that time... as of yet, i have still only heard a handful of recordings using the cbsx, which does seem to have made its debut appearance in '76 (unless i blinked and missed it..!). certainly, from what i've heard so far, b. was able to produce a far wider range of sounds with the cbcl than the cbsx... who knows why that should be the case...

- "maple leaf rag"/"jitterbug waltz"... yes, i see what you mean, though it remains the case that the latter is a "typical jazz" version with a dolphy flute solo, etc, whereas the former is played very straight indeed, no solos, almost no deviation from the written score... still, i do take the point.

c x

ubu xxiii½ said...

Yes, you're right about Basel 1977. I realized that just after I posted.
One aspect of saxophones in general is that they have a wider dynamic range than clarinets, tho the latter may compensate for this by the startling & radical difference in timbre between upper & lower (chalumeau) registers.
Does the bass clarinet for instance &/or per se have a more interesting sound than the baritone sax? (similar pitch range)
Braxton plays more contrabass sax on the trio at Victoriaville 2007 but he plays little if any bass or alto clarinet on record as far as I know, I suppose he has enough to be getting on with.

centrifuge said...

mmm, interesting... i didn't realise he played cbsx on the 2007 trio album - haven't got that one yet, though now i come to think of it, there are some pretty large pieces of hardware on the front cover..!

he plays almost a full range of saxes on the 4-cd set with joe morris, by the looks of it - no tenor. but maybe the cbsx is making a comeback, and a good thing too - i must admit i was under the impression he'd stopped playing it some while back. i'm quite glad to be proved wrong there.

bcl... he's actually credited with playing this on quite a few things (the 2001 gtm box with robair, shiurba etc springs to mind) - but as far as i can tell he plays it for tone colour, doesn't take solos on it..? that being the case, i can't think of any clear examples where it's obviously him playing it...

as for whether the bcl has a more interesting sound than bari sax... hmmm... gotta go away and think about that! i suppose it depends on who's playing them... possibly the next few months of braxtothon work will throw up some more expressive cbsx playing; i'll be curious to find out...