Tuesday, November 25, 2008

repeat encounters

(some thoughts regarding "encounter" by john carter)

four versions of this piece that i know of at this point:

1. john carter/bobby bradford, released on self determination music. studio, 1970 (date?)
carter - sax; bradford - cornet; tom williamson and henry franklin - bass (franklin uncredited*1); bruz freeman - drums
- this is surely the earliest rendition of the piece..? i didn't know it existed until very recently*1. in any case there is then a large gap before a much later version of the band revived the tune -

2. bobby bradford-john carter quintet, released on comin' on. live, 29th may 1988.
bradford - cornet; carter - clarinet; don preston - synth; richard davis - bass; andrew cyrille - drums
- a far "spacier" version, which i took to be the "original" when i first heard it (summer '07). cyrille liked the piece so much that he later worked it into the book for his own band -

3. andrew cyrille quintet, at leverkusener jazztage*2. live, 23rd october 1992.
cyrille - drums; ted daniel - trumpet; oliver lake - alto sax; adegoke steve colson - piano; reggie workman - bass
- and he dedicated to carter, who had died earlier in the year. workman, in turn, liked it so much he incorporated it into his band's book, next time he got the chance to lead his own record date -

4. reggie workman, released on summit conference. studio, 6th december 1993.
workman - bass; sam rivers - tenor sax; julian priester - trombone; andrew hill - piano; pheeroan aklaff - drums
- and indeed he used it to kick off the album, a bold statement of intent (but with an all-star band to back it up!).

* * *

- to me it says much about the appeal of this terrific piece that workman would voluntarily decide to play it: the bassist's role here is constantly thankless and demanding, offering the twin pitfalls of repetitive tedium and maddening frustration, since one is almost bound to hit a wrong note sooner or later - ! but how could one not want to let rivers and hill loose on this? and besides, workman had an idea or two of his own... read on.

when i first tried to write this piece (tues 25th) i listened to all four versions in chronological order, twice. but time ran out and besides, i then needed to sit with it for a few days before the connection i needed surfaced: i suspect carter's inspiration in the first place may have come from "status seeking" by mal waldron. it's an obvious precedent for carter to have heard, since the studio version of it (on waldron's the quest) features that man eric dolphy (elbowing his way in to take the first solo, no less). in any case, both pieces are basically up-tempo, high-tension cookers with plenty of potential for intelligent excitement. but the harmonic unease of the earlier piece, summed up neatly in the long initial note and the staccato two-note descending tag which follows, is "reversed" in carter's piece, turned instead into an asymmetrical ascending motif for the bass: three notes then extended to four, same three notes then five, a bar of brisk 7/8 preceding a second bar of doubled 4/4. in carter's creation, this bass figure will begin and end the piece, creating an illusion of perpetual motion which the listener can carry on long after the fade.

the lopsided effect of the (count seven, count eight) bass figure is then reflected and extended in the deceptively simple theme, which opens with four unison notes, a motif which on repetition reveals a concluding (non-unison) note. this five-note phrase is not itself the whole of the nervy theme, but i want to pause there anyway: some time ago*2 i was satisfied that the film close encounters of the third kind was being referenced, which made sense to me at the time (believing as i did that the '88 live version was the first). and of course that would seem to make perfect sense, given carter's title for his piece - and does not the "a,e,i,o,u" sing-song effect of the five-note motif recall the sonic key from the film..? (not that i've seen it myself... never mind how i know that detail!) but if the piece dates back to 1970, it can hardly be quoting a movie from the tail end of the decade, now can it. could perhaps the influence run the other way? mmmmmaybe: not at all inconceivable that a younger spielberg could have been at the sort of trendy west-coast parties where such a hip disc as self determination music might have been laid down... but whether the tune would have made enough of an impression on him... well, who knows. there may be another explanation entirely, or it may just be one of those cosmic coincidences.

* * *

the first version, then, closes an excellent (ridiculously overlooked) album in such a way as to leave the bassline simmering way on a loop in the mind. williamson and franklin*1 struggle at times with the exigencies of the bass part, but get the chance later on to break things up a bit, play off each other in an unfettered and high-spirited duel. otherwise, the thought which chiefly emerged from this hearing was that in gaining one of its great clarinetists, free jazz lost a very fine sax player... and with the close of the album, a powerful musical conception slipped away into obscurity, not to be resurrected (?) until a generation had passed.

the later bradford-carter band, captured in 1988, transforms the piece into something explicitly way out, not just outward bound: carter of course is on clarinet exclusively (as by now he had been for some years), and his ethereal whoops and whirls are well supported by the always-underrated preston, who pushes the sound palette further and further into the cosmos. so there's less need for sheer speed this time, and it is taken rather less frantically than the 1970 version. this version, of the four, is really the only one which tackles the implications of the fast bass underpinning the unhurried, swaying melody, envisaging the piece as a journey with stasis at its centre, not just an endless extended line. unfortunately, it achieves this at the unmistakable cost of momentum - this begins when carter's lengthy solo is followed by bradford's more straightforward set of jazz lines, then continues as cyrille drops out behind the synth and bass: freed from the constraints of the written figure, davis provides sensitive and knotty backup for preston at first, but the latter unleashes a set of extended scales and arpeggios (which collectively sum up the expanded harmonic backdrop we're experiencing, but which seem rather predictable compared to the imaginative playing in the group sections); and when davis continues alone, what he comes up with is little more than a series of rambling cadenzas adorning the inevitable tonal centre. well executed though it is (of course!), and appropriate though it may be to keep returning to a static centre in the midst of such a far-out excursion, the (to me) inescapable fact is that a jazz bass solo is not really what we needed here. of course, it's not too long before davis rekindles the fire and we're off again, back out among the distant starfields. *3

cyrille's own version comes in the midst of an eyebrow-raisingly straight-ahead jazz quintet gig - well, not quite straight ahead, maybe, but some of the material is far closer to standard trumpet-sax-piano five-piece fare than one might expect on hearing the names cyrille or lake. still, there is plenty of fire when it's needed, and the band provides it on this number. colson really takes over the "far-out" duties here, using fistfuls of notes in the bottom end to smash the harmonic possibilities way open. it's fitting that cyrille chose this piece to pay tribute to his former leader, recently deceased...

... and even more fitting that workman seized the idea and ran with it! hill, given complete harmonic license from the off, must have had fun with this number and rivers really tears it u. but workman manages somehow to make it the leader's piece after all... this is the only version of the tune featuring a trombone, and priester combines wonderfully with workman himself at times, developing an intriguing, many-voiced effect unique to this rendition. workman departs from the written line in ways which are usually brief and always to the point, his staggered descending run before a final pickup and resumption, heading towards the fade, a perfect encapsulation of this. *4

* * *

in truth, for such a stormy piece, all four versions show the wild elements pretty well under control. despite my earlier ravings*2, none of these renditions represents full-on free jazz chaos. and with the obvious exception of the electrified second version, all are reasonably interchangeable. perhaps the ultimate rendition has yet to be conceived or captured; or perhaps workman, stripping the piece down to its essentials and ignoring all other implications beyond the fast extended line, has done all that really needed to be done with it... i enjoy all four versions, anyway, and if anyone knows of any others, do please give me a shout!

* see second comment


centrifuge said...

photo by mrs c, feb 2003.

yes, it's really the 30th november, not the 25th... for some reason blogger takes the date the draft was first saved, not the date it was finished and posted.

plans eh... hrumph. when i said i was almost ready to dump all this *dortmund* stuff i've been carrying around with me... i sorta was... but was ludicrously unrealistic about getting enough time to type it all up. at this stage it's best to assume i'm at a temporary grinding halt... in case you didn't already..!

oh, by the way... this was technically the 100th post... there are two drafts, not by me, which have never been completed or published.

centrifuge said...

1. for the rip, go here: http://tinyurl.com/5me49h - having said what i did about no longer participating in that community, i then found i couldn't let sotise go unthanked. thanks are also due to serviceton for providing the vinyl rip in the first place... and to raleigh95 for confirming the identity of the second, uncredited bassist. since i don't know who plays which part, i'm reduced to the weak gloss "williamson and franklin" when citing the written bassline and its attendant unforced errors in this first version.

2. and for the cyrille gig: http://tinyurl.com/6jm3ps - having only heard the concert some time after fredito posted it, i then left a longish and slightly hysterical comment detailing what i then perceived to be the ancestry of the piece, and the "quote" i thought i heard in it.

3. despite the longueurs of this live version, the album itself is easily recommended. preston plays (rather hancockish) piano as well as synth. incidentally, for those who enjoyed the flying dutchman album referred to in 1. above, the later live album also includes a return to "the sunday afternoon jazz society blues", mistitled "the sunday afternoon jazz blues society " on the 1970 release - a simple error which nonetheless ends up being something of an insult to carter's (considerable) intelligence.

4. again, the workman album is highly recommended, showcasing a top-flight band exploring a fairly wide variety of material.