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.


centrifuge said...

sigh... the whole point about this little side-excursion was that it was *supposed* to be dealt with quickly, i.e. written up straight away. in the event it took me almost a fortnight... and in the meantime i didn't want to post the next "proper" instalment as that would take us further away from the (supposed) date of this gig. i only finished writing the article an hour ago, and put it up right away... so if it's even more verbose/unreadable than usual, that's just too bad ;-) i really had to get the damn thing outta the way!

a few other things:

1. when i say "unscheduled stop #1", i'm not promising there'll be a #2... it was, y'know, just in case :)

2. the recording itself, in case anyone doesn't know, was posted at inconstant sol on may 25th:
- jason's research can be found in the comments.

the sound quality isn't too fantastic (but fuck that, just listen to the music, especially later in the concert) - and there are a few nasty sound faults. it would be interesting to know whether these were in the source recording, or whether they appeared during the transfer to mp3..?

3. originally i planned to say a "few" words about triotone, as well, even if it is technically irrelevant... but this all got out of hand! so it'll have to wait... some other time i will probably write it up as a detour post. it's a remarkable album in many ways, and b's playing on it is pretty incredible...

enough already!!

1009 said...

thanks for this write-up, cent!

as i'm going through it, though, i'm still confused: is this an official release? it seems to be, but i can't find any cover image for it (while the solo moers, the braxton/lewis, & even the quartet w/ wheeler have readily available scans in various places). using itunes as i do it's nice when i can find one, but i'm beginning to think this might be a fruitless search.

then again maybe i'll find more answers once i'm done with yr post. thanks at any rate!

centrifuge said...

hiya - no, far from it, it was never officially released at all which is why a) the details can't be confirmed yet, b) the sound ain't great and c) there's no discog link in my post... if it were an official release, there wouldn't have been such a frisson of excitement when rumours of the line-up first circulated on sol!

1009 said...
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1009 said...
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centrifuge said...

brent, very nice, but... that line-up might need tweaking! did you read any of the article, or more to the point did you listen to the concert..? ;-)

1009 said...

that's a "no" to both ... just had lewis on the brain, having finished his book today.

ah well, new challenges...

centrifuge said...

how was the book? that's definitely one i'll want to read... you'll see why if you read the post!

as regards the music... sorry if that sounded rude earlier, didn't mean to really, but you'll see why when you hear it - there's no way you would mistake that r-section for holland and altschul, i think ;-)

george lewis... at the moment (marooned in 1976 as i partially am!) this man is much in my thoughts - amazing musician, absolutely amazing... i look forward to hearing a lot more of him in the future {clink}