Tuesday, August 12, 2008

braxtothon '08: session 008

europe, fall 1976... the end of the year approaches, but there is still plenty of music to squeeze in before we get there... back on the euro live circuit (what would american creative musicians have done without it?), we are almost ready to hear the new version of the quartet, at last; but first there is another reeds-and-bone duo to negotiate. what, another one? doesn't that seem a little odd..? it's not the most commercial formula ever devised, and besides, the earlier album was so damn good, surely it's not worth releasing another in the same format unless it could somehow be even better? well now...

session 008: donaueschingen (duo) 1976
date: 23rd october 1976

restructures link

this time around, the duo will play as if they were a group, that is to say the main set will be seamless, no pauses between territories... that's the first notable difference, and the second is that this time it's a lewis composition which kicks things off.

no change in one respect, though - braxton takes first showcase. and it's the monster..! right from the start (of the album at least - was this actually the start of the set?) b. is on contrabass clarinet, that fabulous sound... and for the first minute he puts the instrument through its paces unaccompanied, lewis joining him after a natural pause; both men start to spell out a slow, mournful theme - this is "fred's garden" - but it's a theme which is happy to be interrupted from time to time, lewis taking over solo for a bit, impressing again with his full, ringing tone - and though the two horns return to the theme then, this soon enough gets messed up, and the fourth minute sees the first hints of dual freedom escalate very quickly into full-blown mayhem. by 3.55, with both horns trying to outdo each other in low-pitched blasphemy, it sounds like a bubble-blowing contest in some gas-infested swamp... fantastic! but, as one might have come to expect by now, that's precisely when the balance shifts back again and the next entries from both are clear and melodic, the next section of the long and winding theme being spun carefully out. (in this respect i'm reminded of comp. 23e among others, but only a little bit. the way the theme treads ponderously along, counting itself slowly off - in between explosions of madness - does remind me of some of b's ballad themes, but the whole setup in this case sounds far more akin to free improv. braxton has always claimed not to have been influenced by the euro free guys, simply because his basic style was fully formed before he encountered them, but is the same true of lewis i wonder? more likely the european developments were just one more module on the younger man's "syllabus"..?)

as far as i can tell, this is the only recorded version of lewis' piece. "fred's garden" is perhaps not the cheeriest place to visit, seemingly dark and spooky, inhabited by sparse groupings of gnarled and twisted trees - and there's always that charming swamp over by the compost heap! but in any case it's a good place to start here, providing all the necessary ingredients: tension, strange beauty, absurd humour. more than once, the audience is provoked into delighted laughter - what did we miss? from around the 7.00 min mark, b. switches to sopranino and the two players chase each other around for a while, then fall into march time, both exulting in it (back at moers in june, the same possibility was raised and dropped; in between, we can assume that lewis has rehearsed some of b's march pieces, specifically comp. 6c). here the march is introduced more in the manner of a ticking clock, and it's something which both pick up so quickly that it must (?) have been prearranged - tick, tock, tick, tock, until it becomes clear that this is actually a countdown, and we'd better run for cover before that old land mine of fred's finally explodes... ah, no, maybe it was just a false alarm. but in any case there's (never) any time to look back and reflect at what's been, because what's now is always so compelling: in a microcosm of the duo's basic approach, the next minute or so sees all manner of variations in attack and mood from both players: soaring beauty, crabbed and warped weirdness, it's all there so that even that which is not played is yet implied. outrageous squeals from the braxbird, and more mad laughter... this is the stuff! even at its most edgy, the music is always spirited and lively. stop me if you've heard this one before, but these two players were made for each other.

from around 9 mins, the landscape begins to shift and change, moving by increments towards comp. 6f. this is only unusual because it's a duo; it's standard practice for the quartet, in continuous performance. rarely do we get a clear-cut ending of one territory, leading to the next: rather, as one piece starts to wind down, the basic tessitura of the following piece is established little by little, so that in many cases it's possible to get clues as to what will come next; only when all the key elements are in place will the theme begin, to confirm which area we are now exploring... here, the pair give hints in the form of swift pecks and very fast little linking runs... around 10 mins, there's the theme and within thirty seconds we can see exactly why b. has revived this old piece, surely the longest-serving of his entire repertoire at this point. both men just find it inspirational, and lewis in particular drives the pace hard as both horns toy with dynamic variations, alternating very forceful attacks with very quiet ones. a gentle passage ensues, still urgent in its coded message at this speed, but beautifully restrained; and then, by degrees, the concept of forcefulness is leaked back into the mix - the next couple of minutes see all sorts of variations, again, a perfect holographic fragment of the greater world of possibility that opens up whenever these two men take the stage together.

by 14 mins things have slowed right down, a sleepy trombone puffing out a line of sorts while the clarinet which joins it, though not sleepy at all, still has the usual hypnotic qualities (this bird is nothing if not a charmer). soaring, haunting evensong becomes a playful series of exercises, becomes free improv, all cycles moving organically into each other with deceptive rapidity, the basic texture of the music changing every few seconds but never seeming to change suddenly, not at all. (gtm already implied.) braxton, for sure, will have honed this sort of skill in europe, but also back home with the other aacm masters - and the same traditions presumably already inform the young lewis, the rest being down to his natural ebullience and curiosity as a sound-maker. in any case, however they arrive at this level of wizardry, the upshot for us is that one idea after another is dangled before the listener's ear and an attentive mind will be greatly rewarded. no-one need ever see the title comp. 6f
(or "73 kelvin", etc) on a tracklist and think, "ah, not again, i don't need to bother with that". there is no such thing as a routine version of it. (of course i would hope this is true of all the compositions -!)

the restatement sounds ridiculously fast when it arrives, but they are both so zoned in by now that they just sound as if they're enjoying it (and probably were). in due course they wind it down slow, very slow, lewis collapsing altogether into rasping clouds of flatulence, then singing through the middle of the clouds, and the next clarion calls from the trombone signify the opening of the next territory (*1), comp. 64. so good, they played it twice - this piece was of course the superb opening number for the previous duo, at moers, back in june. and this version, of course, sounds totally different... this just the sort of thing which makes track-listing live recordings so very tricky. but it is specified, there in the catalogue of works (*2): comps 64-8 are "designed for many different interpretational context possibilities". there is something of the same cartoon menace in this performance as there was at moers, but that earlier music was not written out, exactly, and neither is this.

when b. joins the trombone this time, he is on contrabass sax, two monsters now on tour, sending postcards back to the radioactive swamps of neptune, no doubt... the exposition of the piece is far more measured and ruminative than the instant acceleration of the earlier rendition, but still, by 1.30 both are playing forcefully, leaving ringing echoes behind them in the soundspace and at 2.30 we're right in the middle of a brief but very intense storm, b. overcoming his instrument's inherent limitations(*3) by mixing in attacks made fully with the voice and breath. in between, the pair have casually dropped in the first written phrases and around 2.50 they return to these, initiating almost a minute of exchanges which clearly recall the earlier version. when they appear to have locked each other into an unhelpful groove around 4.05-4.10, this turns out to be simply the conclusion of a given passage, signed off with another birdcall motif. 4.30, another emphatic blatt from lewis cues up an exchange of high pitches and squeaks, whistles from the reed, radio static from the brass, yet another excursion which takes us into clouds of noxious gases before it's through, but lewis is just so outrageously good at this. by 5.30 both are down at the opposite end, pooting and blarting like restless ships in a harbour. by 6.30, with the whistles now being mixed in with the poots and blarts, it would be pretty hard to identify the sound sources. lewis now has a mute on - and mr braxton, somehow, has managed to get this most cumbersome of beasts to perform some of the tricks its cousin revels in - indeed the ensuing barnyard conversation exposes so much versatility in the reedmonster that i find myself (later) wondering if it's not a clarinet after all - but i'm pretty sure it's not. in any case, at 7.35 there's a clean break and although the next entries from the leader are more squeaks, he's now on alto as it turns out. pecks and kisses are exchanged (a favourite technique between these two!), interspersed with fast and fluid runs now. then another change, already: squiggles up high become clarinet swoops lower down, and then we're suddenly being shown something quite different.

stately, grandiose monologues come now, and then back into unison, but although both toy with dynamics expertly as they tease out some more written phrases, the multi-dimensional key which was displayed and used at moers does not make a reappearance. so when a very fast section kicks off, shortly before 12.30, i'm wondering whether we have switched territories again - the last part of the set deals with lewis' "duet 1" (back to the no-frills titles). regardless of when that switch takes place exactly, it's back to monologues now, seductive beauty and furious barks from the clarinet, culminating in more whistles, and yet more brazen brilliance from lewis; as b. takes over again, around 14min, it still sounds remarkably like a braxton territory but then we're presumably in a free space, within a partially prescribed environment, whoever actually conceived it. then it changes again: lewis takes a phrase from b. and jumps around with it, the leader then doing the same, and now the exchanges are much more rapid, each overlapping as an idea is borrowed, imitated, mutated, batted back and forth with increasing abandon until it's no longer recognisable. lewis then sketches out a sort of mournful bugle call, which draws a few inbreaths and laughs and even a clap or two. structures grow and collapse. more organic growth and change. every few seconds could be isolated for inspection.

another switch, to sopranino sax, leads to the latest spectacular demonstration of where all those untold hours of practice went - for a minute or so, the leader really goes crazy but then, as he does, he decides to wind it right down and we're back to another game, the two matching attacks again, both using sighing cadences now, lewis cracking me up again when his crude humour comes to the fore... and finally with the end in sight, there's a sequence of written themes which, to be sure, do sound pretty braxtonesque... but maybe it's more a question of aacm-esque, who knows for sure.

the brief applause is surely edited, otherwise the "encore" begins almost right away, a delightful "donna lee" with which to send everyone off... not feeling the need to make a bold statement with it, the pair play it a little more sedately than one might expect, dropping down a touch to "chattanooga choo-choo" pace; quickly, they dispense with everything apart from the rhythm, both taking back streets away from the theme, but never losing sight of each other - again, they toss ideas to each other at one point in a "round" effect, both in place to pick up the thread of the main theme again and within three minutes, they're in and out, said all that needed to be said.

* * *

if it doesn't have quite the same startling quality as the earlier concert, that's only to be expected since word would have gotten around by now. in any case, for the quality of the music and the improved, better-shaped programme, this has to be a CCCC job as much as the earlier duo. with the main set worked seamlessly into suite form, and the standard popped on the end as a little encapsulation of respect for tradition, deviation from tradition, and continuation of tradition... this one works even better. i'm not totally convinced that the start of the album was the start of the concert, but it does provide a neat symmetry - and it means that the main set both begins and ends in a manner as pleasingly understated as the earlier effort was declamatory. as for the quality of the music, how would we choose between them?

* see comments


centrifuge said...

1. restructures lists the main set as one uninterrupted track on the cd, but my rip came with a separation between comps. 6f and 64 - mp3 tags on this rip were accordingly incorrect.

2. various places to find the catalog(ue) of works - easiest and most obviously appropriate is at restructures again ( - just click on a hyperlinked title). the *introduction* to the catalogue is well worth reading, especially for someone who is lucky enough to be just starting out on the discovery of this master musician: http://restructures.net/BraxDisco/IntroCatalogWorks.htm

3. since writing this piece i have been corrected, for similar comments made in the abrams duets session (007). if the limitations are *not* in the instrument then clearly they must be in the player's mastery of it, though it seems like an odd time for technical limitations of that magnitude to be showing up for the first time - ? then again, the performance on contrabass sax at donaueschingen is (eventually) enough to have me doubting which instrument is being played, so maybe it really did just take even the master a little while to get that stubborn beast under firm control.

lee said...

I'm new to your blog, but wanted to say that your writings on Braxton and his playing are fantastic. It's taken me a long time to actually listen to Braxton's music (far too long from my perspective, though there's still plenty of time to dig deep), and your blog has become a new companion in my own exploring.
Now I'll have to make time to go back to the Braxton/Lewis duos this week. Though maybe I'll augment those with Lewis and Braxton solo recordings. You know, just to mix it up.

centrifuge said...

hi lee, thanks very much for dropping by, and for your kind comments! you arrive at an auspicious time i hope, i.e. just as the site is finally getting a bit easier to navigate... now that you've found us - i.e. the blog, the community of friendly experiencers, the music itself - do please stick around! it's never too late for a listener with open ears to discover the music...

i'd be interested to hear your thoughts also - sometimes i get the impression that people think they can't post a comment here unless they're going to produce some sort of phd thesis, but really is not the intention at all - i was originally hoping just to be part of a *collective* effort to understand the music better; little by little, that is what is happening i think, but we could definitely do with a few extra voices... welcome!

*** remember folks - this is about celebrating/appreciating the man in his own lifetime, i.e. the reverse of what is usually the case (marketplace very much prefers dead artists; critical body likes to think it doesn't follow the marketplace but of course it does, it's financed by it).

it's a tricky one... it's all very well saying spread the word (as i sometimes do!), but we all know this is not the sort of stuff one can simply press on anyone... on the other hand, every new generation that could be exposed to a greater range of harmonic systems/heterodoxies would bring with it the possibility of far more open ears in the future..?

top 40 does not HAVE to rule the world... does it?

lee, thanks again for the fresh input and see you around, i hope :)

lee said...

I ended up doing a listening session with "Elements of Surprise," then spent some time with George Lewis's first solo record and, for contrast, David Murray's live solo recordings. Thought I'd come back and type up a few of my impressions.

When Murray plays solo, he sounds like he's searching for something with his sax--this is where the Ayler comparisons are most apt. Braxton, however, sounds like a composer all the time, similar to Lewis. To my mind, this aspect of Braxton's playing really comes through on the Lewis duos, and again much later on the Cecil Taylor "Historical Quartet" shows, which I'd listened to non-stop last weekend so I've been thinking about them a lot lately.

When they play together, AB and Lewis (or Taylor) feel like they're composing off of each other rather than improvising. For me, this sets the Lewis duos apart from other small groups Braxton's put together. I haven't heard any of AB's duets with Marilyn Crispell, but I suspect there's a similar vibe there.

centrifuge said...

lee, thanks for those further thoughts and do please keep 'em coming...

... i am cautiously inclined to agree with you about braxton's always sounding like a composer; cautiously, because as you may know i am very wary of the temptation to simplify/generalise differences (between players, between phases, between styles etc etc), and tend to get a little nervous when these differences are summed up very neatly in quotable, "soundbite" form..! (this is perhaps more evident in some of my responses to previous comments than it is in the actual posts, though the prolixity of the latter hints at it too...)

a feature of b's duets with crispell is the fact that they are never meeting halfway, exactly - as far as i know, every time the two played together it was in the context of all-braxton sets. (another reader has bemoaned this state of affairs.) this of course is not the case with the lewis duets.

just out of interest, which david murray solo live sets were you listening to? i am familiar with some, but there's quite a few iirc.

lee said...

I listened to David Murray's Solo Live, Vols. 1 & 2, though I also have Organic and Sur-Real (both of which I believe I found at inconstantsol, which is also how i found your blog).

That's very interesting about the Crispell duets, and a little sad too. The more I hear her play, the more I think she's woefully underrepresented. Nice to know I'm not alone on that.

You're right, of course. I should be wary of reducing an impression to a generalization, especially when talking about music!

Frédito said...

Hi Centrifuge, wow what a captivating reading, and I must confess I left the ending part for another reading tomorrow (or later tonight ? ?) I guess you can say I'm a victim of the "people think they can't post a comment here unless they're going to produce some sort of phd thesis" syndrome, for most of the time I feel I would just add extremely uninteresting comments to your very developed writings. Add to this the language barrier... Well, I've been listening to some b. lately, Five Pieces 1975 (very nice You Stepped Out of a Dream opener & the rest is superb as well, of course. I was impressed by Wheeler & Holland, which does not mean I was not enjoying Altschul), New York Fall '74 that for some reason left me less impressions (maybe my concentration at the moment) than the Town Hall '72 which opened this mini braxtothon. Included in this listening session was Elements of surprise as well, and something tells me I will re-play it while reading your article. I keep enjoying b at every listen.

centrifuge said...

hi lee - well, i'm very wary of generalising/oversimplifying in discussing b's music in particular... some people apparently dislike my writing for precisely that reason, i.e. my failure to provide them with nice handy soundbites to get hold of: you know, braxton's 70s work is x, his 80s work is y and gtm is z - that sort of thing. but it just isn't that simple..!

on the other hand, we can all be guilty of this sort of thing on occasions, and i've pretty much done it myself (not necessarily here) with regard to david murray: interesting for the first few years he was on the scene, less so from the 80s onwards - ! and that must surely be a gross oversimplification, even if it is a view shared by many free jazz fans... there's no doubting the man's abilities as a player, but what he did with his music is subject to all sorts of doubts and debates; quite possibly he hasn't been helped by the mainstream establishment's embracing him as a sort of "acceptable face of free jazz"... as a result, fans on the free side tend to disown him altogether these days. but i did certainly enjoy those solo live recordings you're talking about.

b's duets with crispell are well worth hearing btw - she works so well with him; it is nonetheless interesting that they never seem to have gone beyond a "master-pupil" relationship into one of full equals. not sure why that is.

centrifuge said...

fredito, chsuis ravi de te lire ici :-D ca fait pas mal de temps quoi!

glad to hear you are enjoying the music at your own pace... if you have *any* specific impressions of the albums you mention (or any others), do feel free to add them to the relevant posts! hopefully the site is more navigable these days... and i would be interested to read what you think, though i will also understand if you don't wish to do that... either way, it's great to hear from you - i'll be in touch!

p.s. - town hall 72, that's one i really must get back to soon - i need to hear that quintet again: will be interested to see if i've changed my mind at all...