Monday, November 16, 2009

the good news, bad news show

argh... just seems to be one damn thing after another at the moment... as will be explained below. first, the good news, which came to me a few weeks ago now, via a mailshot from leo records: this tantalising new release, just in time for the festive season (i think i may be about to treat myself). as far as i know, these two master musicians have not been captured in duet before; indeed, off the top of my head i don't know of any braxton recordings featuring leandre other than the victoriaville 1988 septet performance. good news for sure!

the bad news... well... my computer has been struggling gamely along for a few months now despite obvious virus damage - until recently, when it pretty much packed up on me. that left us with nothing apart from my wife's shagged-out old laptop, which itself is more or less on its last legs and will only support a web browser so primitive that it won't let me use blogger at all. so, if you've been wondering why i went all silent again... that's why. hopefully the desktop will soon be fixed and i can get typing again. the desire is there. meanwhile, here i am in a public library just for a few mins, no time even to pass on my latest musings on the lewis book... not yet. (i can still check email, so feel free to leave comments!)

Monday, October 19, 2009

critical massage 4

anyone who has checked in here recently will probably know that i was hoping to get writing again... and you can see how well that worked out... generally i have little or no free time during the days, and by the evenings i am often unable to summon up the desire to write (or do anything much requiring brainpower). not quite sure when that problem might resolve itself... but one thing i have been doing - and not before time - is reading george lewis' excellent book on the aacm, a power stronger than itself. not surprisingly, any number of fascinating points are raised in this book (i'm about halfway through it at the moment). there's a couple of things i want to single out here.

the first one concerns the whole question of negative attitudes towards free (-spirited) music displayed by the critical fraternity over the years, and specifically in the late '50s and early-mid '60s (by the end of that decade, things apparently had evened out somewhat - though this was something of a false dawn, in that the '70s saw creative musicians pushed ever further into the margins, and to the verge of penury). of course, i knew about leonard feather's blindfold tests - though lewis' book makes it abundantly clear to what extent feather used these to push his own personal prejudices regarding "legitimate" musical approaches - and i knew about john tynan's notorious "anti-jazz" attack on coltrane and dolphy in 1961; but chapter 2 of a power... really goes into all this in disgraceful detail: that is, the (uniformly white, middle-class) critics under scrutiny here emerge in disgrace. their sheer arrogance is breathtaking. clearly, they felt that they understood "jazz" better than the musicians who played it, who created it; more than that, even, they seem to have felt that by setting themselves up as arbiters elegantiae for the music, they owned it in some way, and were therefore entitled to express outrage whenever they felt that some newcomer had "broken the rules". it makes grim reading, particularly so as it's hard to doubt that there was an undeclared racial prejudice at work: lewis tells us (ch. 4, p. 87) that as late as 1966, down beat was giving far more attention to the (white) joe daley trio than to any local black musicians, even going so far as to label them "the city's foremost 'new thing' group" (the new thing itself having been, of course, widely lambasted by these same critics when it was originally introduced... by black musicians). the fact that such blatant cultural favouritism was being indulged (at a time when the south side of chicago was seething with activity) is made still worse by the fact that down beat was itself based in chicago - !

[at least i am far from being the first to comment on this stuff - lewis wasn't either: he points out (ch. 2 again) that ekkehard jost has been scathing of (what we might politely call) the highly conservative views of many american critics during this period; and in fact down beat's own wilful ignorance of what was happening in its own backyard in 1966 had not gone unnoticed even then - the canadian magazine coda had commented on precisely that.]

the actual extent of any racially-motivated elitism in all this is impossible to gauge, as the issue is of course highly complicated. as lewis makes clear, the whole point about the blindfold tests around this time was that feather was able to use them to voice his own reactionary views, without sticking his own head above the parapet: indeed, in getting black musicians to say what he thought, he also pre-empted any possible accusations of racism. and there were black musicians who disapproved of many of the new approaches, as we know, and perhaps the most strident of them - miles davis - was (therefore) called upon more often than most to put the new thing in its place. never afraid to speak his mind (especially if it might offend someone), miles was also known to detest most critics, and to be (shall we say) rather ambivalent towards whites at the best of times; from feather's point of view, who better to have on your side in this sort of argument? almost certainly, lester bowie had davis in mind when he wrote that, from the perspective of the power-brokers, "musicians... must be made to discourage rather than encourage their fellow musicians' needs, desires and right to play. this is accomplished by several means; by far, the most effective means is to take the few (very few) negative cats and make them big STARS." *1 - it would be interesting to know who else besides davis was being alluded to here; lewis himself discreetly avoids speculating on this, but in referring to bowie's screed as "uncommonly prescient", he cleverly points us towards another notorious motormouth, wynton marsalis, who has (as we all know) done more than anyone to attempt to erase the free players from musical history. *2

* * *

just briefly, then, the second point i wanted to mention concerns the rivalry which is supposed to have existed between anthony braxton and roscoe mitchell. in chapter seven - which i am still reading - this is addressed when it comes to examining the events which took chicago's avant-garde to paris. leroy jenkins (who cannot now be asked about it) had it that "the art ensemble was very competitive, always have been" and that b. "was very competitive too, especially with roscoe". on the other hand, lewis tells us in a footnote that b. has it differently: "the so-called rivalry between me and roscoe mitchell is non-existent". this chapter makes very interesting reading, but i'm not going into any of this now... the issue of rivalry, or the lack of it, between the two saxophone masters is one which i will look at when i eventually get to mitchell's duets with anthony braxton in the braxtothon... don't hold your breath, bearing in mind i still haven't actually wrapped up phase four yet, but this landmark recording will kick off phase five.

* see comments.

Monday, September 28, 2009

autumnal meanderings

well... that certainly was a much longer break than i intended to take. an internet problem during the last week of july made a liar of me (see last para of previous post); with that self-imposed "deadline" missed, the urgency to finish what i was working on at the time passed... and vanished. as the weeks went on and august drifted into september, it got harder and harder to bring my attention back here at all.

is anyone still out there? i know i've alienated a lot of people... part of that is doubtless just my manner, at times perhaps overly aggressive and bloody-minded; and then again, part of it is that what i have had to say is very unpopular in certain quarters. my insistence on telling (what i perceive to be) the truth will never be very welcome in a world where the majority of educated people would rather swap comfortable, shallow falsehoods just to make sure that everyone remains on friendly terms and no-one gets upset. (i've never been any good at this game... and in all honesty i wouldn't want to be.)

there's also the difficult dilemma of the braxtothon itself: it's very time-consuming and requires a degree of tunnel vision; that sort of time and attention is hard to come by these days, for me... and it seems hardly worth it, when most potential readers are not prepared to endure anything like that much detail. still... whatever reasons i had for starting that project, i found different ones for keeping it up: i do it for myself, for posterity, and for the composer... as well as for the benefit of the tiny minority of people who actually want to study b's music closely (rather than just name-dropping him for easy intellectual cred).

those reasons all still apply, and i shall try to get going again after that long hiatus. to get me warmed up, before i even attempt to tackle the outstanding braxtothon entries i will (as stated previously!) be posting some vignettes, thoughts on various random recordings in rather less detail than the core entries. WARNING: one of these articles will also deal with a particularly prickly subject, that of sound quality vs musical content; i am well aware that this is one of the issues which got me (somewhat) ostracised in the first place, and if certain people see the piece in question they will presumably infer a personal attack... for what it's worth, i will say in advance that this is not my reason for examining this vexed question once again. no, but it's important, or so i feel: just in case there are still minds out there which are not already made up, it seems worthwhile to reassure them that the way of the audiophile is not the only way, and certainly not the one true faith that its adherents would have you believe.

Monday, July 13, 2009

-- summer break --

ok, i will now admit - to myself, that is - that i currently just do not have the time or headspace for this stuff, especially not the braxtothon as such, deep and detailed as it invariably is these days...

... i recently posed the theoretical question as to how a diligent martial artist can also be such a terrible procrastinator, etc... well, that's easy enough to answer: for a long time i was not a martial artist any more, gave up training some years ago and only occasionally went back to it, never for very long. that all changed at the end of may this year, when i found myself picking up where i'd left off, and adding all that i've learned in oriental medicine/qigong over the last few years to what i already knew about taiji forms, etc... suffice it to say that i'm back into it again, which is a good thing, all for the better; the downside is that while i'm still trying to bring myself back up to standard, making up for lost time etc, i don't seem to have a lot of time left for much else, especially when you consider that i spend half my daytime hours being a parent anyway..!

hence i may as well just take the pressure off myself by officially calling this a break, and asking the reader to wait patiently for the hiatus to be over and for "normal" service to resume ;-)

[ - there are a few non-braxtothon posts i had lined up, which will appear sporadically, starting later this month... among these, something or other concerning the quartet john zorn put together for warsaw, earlier this same month... i believe i am right in saying that this is the first time zorn and b. had ever played together; it may well also be the first time b. has played with laswell..? anyway, i have enjoyed the music (which is the first '09 vintage recording to have found its way into my collection) and will try and say something about it, soonish..!]

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

braxtothon phase 4 - state of play

much movement behind the scenes lately, some of which was detailed (elliptically) in my previous post... but in any case, not a lot of time has been found for the appreciation of music, never mind writing about it! the listening sessions for braxtothon phase 4 were wrapped up some time since - it's now just a question of getting round to recording my thoughts on them... and i'm hoping to turn my attention to this pretty soon (some of you may think this all sounds very familiar... and you may be right...). when it arrives, here's a summary of what's left in this current phase of the continuing journey:

session 010 - details part two (dortmund)
session 011a - berlin (quartet)
session 011b - berlin (creative orch.)
thoughts and conclusions regarding the quartet at this point

- the momentum may seem to have been hopelessly lost, but this is for posterity as well, and however long it takes... that's not the important bit ;-)

more to come more to come more to come

Monday, June 22, 2009

midsummer ritual/open letter...

... to my readership as of this time, and going forwards:

summer solstice 2009 *

my name is haldane (hal) charles. i am a qigong adept and holistic physician. i also think of myself as a philosopher and teacher. in addition to qigong, i practise taijiquan *1.

i have strong and well-founded opinions on the subjects of pure (non-academic) (metaphysical) philosophy, linguistics, martial arts, (global) politics, science, and the theory and practice of medicine, whether holistic or otherwise... oh, and parenthood ;-)

among the other subjects which greatly interest me, in (nearly) random order: music (esp. extreme metal/hardcore punk and free jazz/creative music); (french- and english-language) comics *2; literature (esp. ghost and horror stories); cinema (esp. gore/horror flix and cult film generally); the tarot (and white magic(k) in general); erotica *3; photography (and visual arts generally)... etc etc *4

i intend to publish on most if not all of these subjects during the coming years (esp. on my various "special interest" dense information sources) - in some cases i may even use the pen-name centrifuge for such writing - but after today, generally these subjects will not be discussed here... music (of course!) being the exception to this.

(my involvement with) this project remains, and will remain, dedicated to the serious study of creative music generally, and specifically to the music of anthony braxton. this latter body of work continues to fulfil my artistic and spiritual needs to a very great extent - ticking boxes i had not previously even known were there to be ticked, time and time again. in the spirit (i hope) of mr braxton, my work here will continue to be essentially unfinished, seldom quite up-to-date even, but occasionally bang on time :) - it will always be honest and heartfelt, and i will strive to do the best i can.

thank you for reading... and on we will go...



* see first comment

* see second comment

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

braxton at 60 (1)

so, when i went off to listen to some of the music referred to in my previous post, i had to smile: there was i saying that "the first thirty seconds" of a lo-fi recording would suffice for the listening ear to attune, and i found myself at once presented with a piece which begins in such poor sound that it challenged even me (and would surely have many fussier than me giving up on the spot)! this is the piece for seven trumpets: whoever provided the files lists this as comp. 107, but it's actually comp. 103, composed in 1983, though it's unclear whether the composer actually succeeded in premiering it before the wesleyan concerts of september 2005... it's an ambitious piece with specific requirements, as we will see.

for the benefit of those who can't put their hand on a copy of composition notes book E, i'll fill in a few details here. firstly, the piece opens with a (fragmentary) recording of a bullfight, and the (decidedly non-braxtonesque) brass music which is heard during these moments is not being played live in the concert. this, of course, explains the very dodgy sound quality at the beginning..! although the loud and excitable crowd noise also hints that this is not a creative music concert which we are hearing ;-) ... in fact, visual spectacle is an important part of this complex piece - and a part which is entirely missing from the audio recording, naturally. (don't let that put you off, necessarily - many other braxton pieces have significant visual aspects to their performance, which does not stop them from being recorded in audio-only format, nor from being enjoyed by the attentive listener.) but it's worth clarifying up front that we are "in" a bullring to begin with, and only gradually drawn out of it: early in the second minute, a live muted trumpet is heard over the recording, and for a while the two co-exist in our soundspace, until 3.00 is reached, by which time the crowd noise is fading out and only our solo trumpeter remains. [this, i presume, is none other than taylor ho bynum - it sounds like him, and certainly he will have been involved with this concert.]

again, from the composer's notes: the piece is dedicated to rafael méndez and was "composed... with the tendencies of spanish architecture and decorative visual imagery in mind - as a tribute to the wonder of south american bravura trumpet playing." it is an all-notated piece (though undoubtedly there must be breathing space in there for the interpreters) and requires very specific stage design, lighting and costume for its performance: most crucially, the seven players are positioned on risers or steps so that each is higher than the player in front. the first live trumpet we hear is in fact number seven; s/he is the only player onstage at this point, and plays "with movements... calibrated from the virtuoso trumpeter lester bowie"; during the opening, the other six players will take up their positions on the columns. "the music then takes place in the backdrop of an old stadium that happened long ago - or in the future. comp. 103 is a ritual context that attempts to show respect for the route of information and information dynamics that has come through south america and the caribbean. the whole of humanity has benefited from these offerings." *

the piece itself, then, is complex - as one would expect - and so for that matter are the notes; i don't have time at present to attempt any sort of detailed analysis, so i shan't! suffice it to say that anyone who dipped a toe in and found the waters inhospitable may have been too hasty: once the taped section is out of the way, i did indeed find that the listening ear was easily able to compensate for the deficiencies of the recording, such as it is. the music makes much of timbral differences between simultaneous players, and these distinctions are clearly audible throughout, as are the relative positions of the performers: many separable tonal and timbral effects are used in addition to the "pure" or clean tone (which itself is adopted at various times) and these, i repeat, come across just fine despite the audience recording, despite the low bitrate... (some of) you might be amazed at how subtle the human ear is in terms of the detail it can detect, if it only has an attentive mind attached to it... this is a powerful piece, and a significant one for the composer, and (unless someone can correct me here) may not have been performed before or since; why not check it out?

* * *

the diamond curtain wall piece is, as i said last time out, (sadly) only a fragment. eleven minutes and twelve seconds is all we get - shame, since this sounds very much like the "core trio" of b, thb and mary halvorson who have made so much beautfiul music together in recent years. what we have is less intense than some dcw i've heard: there is plenty of space for contemplation. but, tantalisingly, right before the abrupt cut the supercollider software kicks in with a ringing, enthralling texture which promises much for the players. if anyone has a complete recording of this one, do please let us know.

* see comments

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

well now... fancy that - !

thanks to mr lucky for bringing this to my attention... the blog itself is pretty entertaining by the look of it* - and may well be worth some readers' closer attentions - this particular post, on the other hand, well, surely any hardcore braxtonhead out there will want to strap on that little lot (paquete 3): some solo 1980 sax and some (belated) 60th birthday celebrations at wesleyan - i'm just about to go and check out some of the music now (and may well report back in due course) - meantime, caveat audiophiles, not that that has ever deterred me as you all know... the piece where the lo-fi reproduction is most obviously an issue, i.e the gtm twelvetet is actually available here anyway. the rest of it - i know from experience that if you can force yourself to sit through the first 30 secs (never has to be forced in my case), it'll prove (clearly) listenable - those of you with expensive equipment will not find it makes good wallpaper, however ;-)

[the diamond curtain wall fragment is just that, obviously incomplete... the whole thing is kinda partial - but i love these little/big discoveries myself... am happy to compromise in order to be able to enjoy them!]

* the futurama guy (hermes conrad, the company accountant) is probably not, despite appearances, based on anthony braxton..! (or is he??)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

4/6 (6/4 -!): 64*

with the greatest respect and affection, sir, as ever...

i wish you...

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

c. x :-D

* see comments

Thursday, May 28, 2009

kowald's vision of (globe) unity

november 1975 saw the globe unity orchestra celebrate its ten-year anniversary by convening for several recording sessions in baden-baden; the guests included our man anthony braxton (of course!). the sessions of the 25th and 26th provided interpretations of material by monk, evan parker and the orchestra's regular leader, alexander von schlippenbach. the 27th yielded a side-long piece by bassist peter kowald (here wielding his less familiar brass bass, the tuba). the piece, entitled "jahrmarkt", seems to conjure up the sounds of a wild funfair (*1), with many sideshows taking place, sometimes simultaneously; the following june saw kowald repeat the effect by taking his recording equipment round the real thing, a multiple musical event in wuppertal, different groupings of musicians all playing at once. understandably, the two pieces were later merged for an album on po torch: the music (and scans) can currently be found here (*). ["local fair", the 1976 event which comprises the album's second side, did not feature braxton (who was almost certainly in europe at the time; he appeared at moers two days later, and may well have been there the previous day also); for that reason, among others, i'm going to concentrate mainly on the studio piece.]

i'll say right away that my overall impression of "jahrmarkt" is that it is rather confused in its conception, if not in its execution; the playing (from an all-star big band) is wonderful throughout, and frequently quite astonishing: that trombone trio, for a start! but after a couple of careful listens, i'm not convinced that the composition succeeds in being anything more coherent than a collection of marvellous moments. [the same is true, only more so, for "local fair", on which kowald rather generously gives himself a composer credit simply for walking around with a mic, picking up the different groupings according to whim or design, i can't say - but although it may have made glorious sense to him at the time, i don't really see how this piece qualifies as a composition as such..!]

"jahrmarkt" begins at high intensity, with peter brötzmann, evan parker and michel pilz all much in evidence (these three players, listed on the sleeve as kicking off proceedings, are the clearest voices at the start, though i reckon i hear more like five different reed instruments in this opening section). brötz in particular opens up at full throttle, forcing the breath through his tormented reed and really leaning hard on the ensuing attack (in the manner for which he's long since become notorious!). pilz adds colour and texture, parker joining brötzmann in shredding the air around the listening ear. after a little while, trombones and bass enter, then drums, the reed section still attacking hard. gradually other groupings enter the fray, and the dense sound which results is (to me) more reminiscent of ascension than it is machine gun (though the latter remains an obvious ancestor). both the excitement and the confusion of these opening minutes encapsulate the piece as a whole, i think: individual players contribute amazing sounds, yet the clash of these sounds seems not merely dense, but often cluttered.

the written parts of the score are pretty open, by the sound of it (and also judging from the diagrams reproduced on the sleeve). some simple thematic elements are clearly prescribed, but much of the organisation is deliberately loose with plenty of leeway for personal expression (this of course being a feature of the guo generally). schlippenbach on this occasion is heard mainly (entirely? *2) on accordion, and the latter's first appearance cues up a ragged rendition of "straight no chaser" from one section of the band (others still playing more freely, in a different part of the studio); braxton's own first clearly-identifiable entry (from 7.55) precedes several different quotes from "ornithology" (a standard which braxton himself had taken to the cleaners the previous year). a little later, we hear "donna lee" (again associated with b., among many other interpreters!) - but to what effect? what design is revealed in these collisions of sound? yes, kowald rather successfully mimics the effect of wandering around a noisy fair or festival, so that collectively the album showcases two different spins on the same basic idea - but i'm still not persuaded that "jahrmarkt" itself really holds together that well.

the second section is apparently spliced in from a different "take" (insofar as one can use that term for such a piecemeal contruction): the accordion occupies a more central place in the stereo image, but it still seems to me to have a somewhat questionable role here! from 14.50, with some horns stringing out slow lines and others playing very fast, the soundscape becomes very dense again; but in the midst of this cacophony, braxton's alto solo has begun, and by 15.20, his is suddenly the only voice we hear. the next minute sees him use that space to run through a whole cluster of his core solo vocabularies for the alto sax, cramming in many of his trademark tricks - but, again, other than honouring the orchestra's special guest, what purpose is served by this miniature treat? in any case, solo magnificence is the order of the day from now until the end, the closing section very much dominated by two successive trombone masterclasses, first rutherford's, then mangelsdorff's. (if nothing else, this reminds me that already in 1975 - the year before george lewis hit the scene - there were at least three trombone virtuosi at work in creative music circles! some of the technical facility and breath control demonstrated in these closing minutes is staggering.) the ending of the piece, when it comes, seems decidedly anti-climactic, as if the close arrives for no other reason than time limitations imposed by the vinyl medium.

* * *

- thanks to lucky and especially to reservatory for posting (and reposting!) the rip and the scans... despite my own reservations about the composition(s), i did enjoy listening to this album and its many individual moments of brilliance...

* comments

* - addendum 17/5/11 -  there is no longer an entry for this album, as such, on restructures: only the piece on side one of the album features b. of course, and this is now to be found on cd here

Sunday, May 17, 2009

braxtothon '08: session 010 (+) - the details, part 1

and now, after an unseemly (series of) delay(s)...

session 010: quartet (dortmund) 1976 (*1)
date: 31st october 1976

restructures link

ok...yes. quite a lot of what you are about to read below was typed a fairly long time ago now (never-mind-when last year)... but this bit is actually live, that is, i am planning to post this before i go to bed tonight.

i haven't ever paid such close attention to this opening two-piece suite before - have not succeeding in doing so because of prior familiarity with the material (as semi-background music). tonight i managed to listen to the performance along with the (most attentive members of the) audience (*2) - and for what it's worth, (given that i am not about to "retract" my CCC recommendation), i really, really enjoyed it - despite the inevitable limitations of the group with regard to the first half of the suite... it's hugely entertaining and filled with marvellous details.

* * *

1 - again, i have no current way of knowing what sort of planning went into the setlists for these last few quartet gigs with holland and altschul - but three days after graz, which opened with an old and familiar sound, the next concert opens with music which the audience will be hearing for the first time, the "batman" piece known to us now as comp. 40f. in order from highest to lowest, braxton, lewis and holland seesaw their way through a series of short staircases, down and back up, little half-steps at a time, one leg always waiting for the second to catch up before moving on. several rounds of this, with some harmony added eventually; then holland (arco) continues alone, repeating the same series - altschul adds (minimal) background colour and texture - and when we come round for the next time, the horns re-enter with something completely different, a tune in short segments, which preserves the pacing of the base (bass) sequence while greatly extending the harmonic possibilities. still within the first minute, now we are in a hallucinatory space, and surely anything is possible.

two things, right here. one, with a muted lewis initially occupying a high-middle area of the soundspace (braxton way off in the altissimo, holland governing a huge range of lower frequencies all on his own at first), the piece sounds as if it could have been written while wheeler was still in the band - but this is something so ruminative, so inherently cerebral and yet so childlike and playful all at once, that it seems more likely to have been directly inspired by lewis; and two, when the developed theme is returned to us in its full form, we are suddenly inside a beehive or vast clock, tiny parts of a huge and complex mechanism (or organism) ticking past us each second, and this must surely be a familiar place to hang out for any gtm-lovers out there. yes, this piece clearly prefigures ghost trance music (*3) once it's up and running... i cannot (surely) be the first to have noticed this, but it's worth saying just in case.

- and it's trusting a lot in the audience. with a clarinet in, the (unmuted) trombone dropping down into a lower range, the second half of the second minute is spooky but still easy enough on the ear, though as we cross the 2.00 mark it's possible a few listeners are wondering where this mysterious path actually leads, if not in a big circle; there is a rather languid flavour to proceedings, and no clear certainty that we're really heading anywhere. (that is, the progression seems to be carried on beyond necessity from the point of view of establishing the core harmonic fabric; but then it is a spooky story, a haunted house with upper and lower storeys of clarinets, and it does borrow from the wind in the trees and in the chimneys, and it doesn't keep human time exactly... besides... enjoy it, this is basically the good bit in terms of all the band members moving at the same speed... and it is a good bit! what a strange and wonderful winding staircase of a construction!) - woodblock taps from altschul around 2.40 just sound too familiar and predictable by now... the whole comfy old shoe business is not really where free jazz (or the avant-garde, whatever that may be) is at. still, there is no question really of wasted momentum: before the end of the third minute there is a dissolution, the leader peeling off first (as usual) and within a few seconds, 3.00 ticks off and four separate voices are having their own say. this is almost a red herring - within a further half-minute, we've slipped back into the stepping sequence (*3a) almost without anyone noticing, but it does foreshadow what's about to happen because by 3.45 we are entering deep space for real.

that being the case, though, it's a relatively safe and welcoming version of deep space, plenty of neon lights and signposts; all four players contribute details, b. himself flicking out tiny party streamers which deliberately recall the old holland game "q&a" again - and thereby setting limits quite early on, in terms of what is expected of the explorers. so, thinking about it, this is a pretty good time to drop this piece into the live repertoire (assuming it really is a premiere - in any case it will be for this audience): it aims for long-distance exploration in a short time-frame, as does comp. 23a, and having seen clearly enough the limits imposed internally on that one three nights ago in austria, why not ease into action a newer model, knowing there is already a speed-limiter in place..?

still, as an opening number it's quite brave... well, then again, why give 'em anything they'd expect? european audiences do respond well to b's music (*4). (in any case, more familiar material is on the way in due course.)

with the leader off on his first flights, the backing is both (somehow) sparse and pretty busy, altschul providing miniature controlled explosions, holland scratching away, sometimes picking up rhythmic echoes from b.(around 6.00) who, himself, is nowhere near as urgently talkative in his first excursion as would once have been the case; this in turn allows room for lewis to butt his way in, with typical boldness - not to say effrontery: on one occasion when wheeler had the temerity to try this (moers, '74) he was silenced in short order; but lewis, that's just different, another matter altogether, and he's proved why on several occasions already this year (*5). questing little breaths, and more decisive blats in between; lewis loves the "talking" effect and presumably b. must love it also. remember, this is still lewis' first calendar year on the "jazz scene" (*6) ! as for the lovely clarinet solo we were just in danger forgetting about - lewis is capable of doing that - it, too, contains many examples of stuttering, falling steps, unveiled effortlessly (of course) in the midst of so much else - they are now out in deep territory, but even as i find myself noting that, we are back to another stepping sequence reminiscent of the written theme; then, just before 8.00, lewis begins glass-blowing, drawing out a controlled, variable-attack line of great continuity and integrity as b. swoops his clarinet up and down. for a few seconds then, the two hornmen seem to be picking up where their unaccompanied duets left off, earlier in the year... and at once it sounds fabulous.

bass and drums still out, lewis takes over the steps; b. plays free. but with lewis then embarking on a short flight of his own, the backing resumes and by 10.20, the contrabass monster makes its first appearance. [this, in fact, is a sort of revenge-upstaging: lewis makes very modest use of his first little bit of open solo space, picks up happily from altschul in particular (who provides the fire as holland poings away) but without needing to burst into flame- and just as the trombonist invites us to share with him a moment's reflection on the simple message he's laid out, bbbrrrroooowwwwrrrr!] - as always, the contrabass clarinet is a pure aural delight for me, easy to take for granted by this point if i'm not careful; and as always, the friendly seamonster can't resist demonstrating that as well as possessing by far the deepest voice, he also has the highest. "bats got nothing on me" :)

2. with the monster signing off around 12.15, holland introduces his own solo with a simple rhythmic phrase, a repeated pedal tone suggesting a new development to which we might return. as is often the case in these live concerts, the bass solo heralds a new set of primary materials (*7), and as holland skitters nimbly up and down, the percussion gradually gathers momentum behind him. at this point there is a palpable sense of something about to kick off, and when (13.45) the horns return, b. is on alto for the first time and everyone is playing fast and hard, approaching the next territory at high speed. at 14.14, the theme of comp. 23j suddenly crashes in and the excitement is tangible; the band burns through the theme (lewis providing so much more forcefulness than wheeler was able to bring to this piece the year before), and in the brief pause which precedes the repeat, the spontaneous cheer which bursts from the audience is infectious.

this is the evening's first alto piece, and it's a(nother) straight(ish) jazz number, a fast bop cooker like 23b - very like, actually, it being at a similar tempo and similarly composed in base units of stepping eights - yep, this is another staircase piece, and in more ways than one: as well as the fast down-and-up-and-down theme, which itself might as well be based on one of b's (solo) master-tags (*8), there is a hanging-time release built in which descends in four steps (*9), not providing a real release so much as prolonging the tension, the trick then repeated from a little higher up the stairs. the rhythm, too, is far less militarily even throughout than 23b - more jazz (for whatever that's worth).

and now comes the night's first alto solo, the very latest instalment in this (seemingly endless) series of core work. for the first time tonight ("live" again now!) i appreciate how fast b. figures out the (quick, double) echo and allows for it, both in terms of throwing out lines which will generate concatenation (when the real-time line collides with the echo from just before), and also in his waiting just for the second echo to die away each time he reaches the end of a section (of the endless song) - hearing back his own last notes before continuing; otherwise, as regards yet another alto solo, what can i say at this point? IT'S ALL ONE SOLO - one continuum - and yet the continuum sounds equally astonishing at each listening, filled with manifold amazements and trickery {*{{@}}*}

- this time the (inevitable) peak is of such intensity, b. actually screams with his open voice, which hardly even counts as multiphonics in this instance since the noise through the sax is scarcely perceptible for the first few blasts, then melds in more and more - before throwing down a forceful, declamatory sign-off which triggers another considerable catharsis within the crowd. lewis in turn picks up the final motif with a few nonchalant puffs to start building up a head of steam, and this time, never mind restrained, he opens out in full flow and knocks dead another euro festival crowd just like that. by now, surely (as with the leader) he can do nothing which will astound me more than he has already - but he does: how he packs those spaces so full of sounds with that cumbersome thing - well, of course in his hands (as in mangelsdorff's, rutherford's...) it doesn't sound cumbersome in the slightest. and unlike with wheeler, altschul in particular hammers the pace along just as hard as he does for b... and holland is tireless, as always; but of course as far as they are concerned, this might as well be 6i or 23b for most of the piece's duration, or any other fast line extension - as chronological explorers (on a long-form exploration), let's not get too carried away with our appreciation of the band's excellence here. collectively, they could almost do this in their sleep by now.

- ah, but although the restatement also is more or less a matter of routine by now (in terms of when and how the rhythm guys cue it up), in the playing, it actually isn't because the sly lewis approaches the first round of written lines as if looking ahead to the days of full-on diamond-clef freedom, laying out sounds which relate to what braxton's playing, but not harmonically as such... the simple, versatile miracle that is the trombone in the hands of a master! the end itself, as abrupt as that of 23b though without the decorative coda, seems fractionally out of synch - but who cares, what an enjoyable little set for this crowd, and for the first time in a long while, i'm no longer surprised to hear a clean break and some very enthusiastic applause - this time it sounds perfectly natural, and we all needed it. (*10)

* * *

part 2 will follow!

* see comments

Saturday, May 9, 2009

{[("work in progress")]} - part one

see comments for explanation..!

DISCLAIMER: i do not submit these thoughts as in any way summing up anthony braxton's style as a musician (player/soloist) or even fully analysing or anatomising it. (i am as yet unqualified to form an opinion as to how exactly braxton was influenced by warne marsh, for example.) rather i am attempting to clarify my own ideas about the path of exploration taken by parker-dolphy-braxton as this, to my ears, is the purest line of development taken by the basic solo voice as it was formed.

1. the first need is to deal with charlie (or charles, as george lewis decided after his own private deconstruction) parker, the alto saxophone's original architect of amazement, doctor mirabilis, the one musician who is the subject of gushing praise in miles' autiobiog: the guy who played so good that in the early days, leaders had to get used to their rhythm sections constantly fucking up because they got totally distracted by what bird had just blown... later on, as miles says, you just had to try and ignore it on the bandstand or you would never stop going "what?? no!! how?!".

1 a) the aacm seems to have been very much built on the idea of new beginnings, and therefore of redefinition, perhaps specifically of restoring honest pride in oneself to a race which the leadership of america had deliberately (and quite successfully) cowed through incarceration, social isolation and/or disenfranchisement - naturally the aacm was far from being the only development along these lines, rather it was able to ride the wave of several other very powerful and cogent ideas, and add its energies in turn; BUT this imperative is all-too-frequently misunderstood as implying some sort of "scorched earth" policy with regard to the jazz tradition.

[in actual fact this misunderstanding is a terrible insult - it strongly suggests to me that those who espouse it (as received/accepted opinion) have just never bothered even to entertain the idea of trying to understand the aacm on its own terms; this is consistent with the prevailing (anglo-american) view of a critic as one who is expert in having entrenched opinions; a good critic in these countries is often thought to be one who has successfully mastered the sneer of contempt, in order to be able to say each time to an interlocutor: "of course you are welcome to your opinion, but let's be clear at the outset that mine is superior to yours..." critics, then - at least those writing in english (which has laughably become the de facto language of culture as well as of commerce, the latter of which suits it far better than the former, it must be said) - tend to characterise the aacm as levelling all that had come before them, in order to start from ground zero; but this makes a complete mockery of the considerable respect and affection which the founding chicagoans had for their own forebears and pioneers.]

- as an alto saxophonist, braxton must first deal with parker, then. of course - who else? it's true that there were those such as paul desmond or lee konitz who were broadly coeval with parker and therefore were able to establish their own styles, which owed little or nothing to him; but anyone following parker in linear time must also follow him musically if only for a while, long enough to discover, at least, which areas he left untouched for his successors.

2. one might expect the next stop to be ornette... but that would be a red herring or dead end. ornette plays ornette, and there is no need for anyone else to do it. (the inspiration provided continuously by ornette is precisely of this nature: see and hear me do my thing, now feel empowered to go and do your own.) ornette's technical quirks are also peculiar to him: like monk's they crop up only because it is necessary to play like that in order to say what needs to be said: borrowing the techniques oneself is only useful in the hands of a very confident and mature master (so mengelberg is able to make use of monk, for example). braxton will feel the inspiration of ornette's example and will be able also to pay homage to him in due course, but in terms of development of his own style there is no similarity really; no, the torch of the thaumaturge was passed to dolphy... and (to mix my metaphors) that's the well at which the young mr braxton must drink next.

eric dolphy... who practised along to parker solos when others around him were partying; knowing early in his life that his way was radically different from that of most others, he must have known also that he was doomed to be scorned and rejected more often than embraced, and was left with a straight choice between turning away from music or just being the best he could be (we know b. had to make a similar choice in his own life); we may be thankful that dolphy selflessly chose the latter (and so condemned himself, though bright and creative, to poverty and isolation), practising ridiculously hard to develop complete facility with a solo voice startlingly different from anyone else's at that time, and with the same power to astonish as bird's.

dolphy's specialities include incredible speed - this is just as it had been for parker, of course; but in dolphy's case the basic harmonic language has been put through a mangle, permanently pulled out of shape so that within it, lines run differently and sounds interrelate in hitherto-unimagined ways... the melted clock image so often derided (as lazy packaging) by jazz writers is nevertheless very apt for this man, whose bass clarinet in particular seems to belong to another world, another set of dimensions entirely from what most of us are accustomed to.

to be more pragmatic and less fanciful: one of the key devices dolphy employs is that of surprising intervals; leaps and swoops in the horizontal continuation of the line which do not so much "extend" the harmony (as critics must conceive of it) as do away with it altogether: what dolphy does above all is suggest - to the ready ear - that the relationship of one utterance to the next need not be (primarily) harmonic. this is crucial to all of the aacm masterminds, not just to braxton; and it would be of great inspiration to many of the europeans also (e.g. brötzmann, who developed parallel with ayler, not after him, but who was greatly inspired as a young man by a night spent talking with dolphy).

3. not unique to braxton: no, many of the key chicago figures had picked up on the implications of what dolphy had done; well, dolphy and probably cecil taylor who was presumably the first musician to approach sound-making in this way, a discourse comprising apparently discrete and uniquely-identifiable instants which together concatenate and generate more instants, which blossom forth in all sorts of directions, but which are not necessarily expressible on the page as standard (solfeggio) notation - dolphy was actually nowhere near this stage himself at the time of his death; he had not yet even glimpsed the perimeters of the territory he was opening up for his eventual successors; or at any rate he had not yet had the time to develop a fully-expanded syllabic vocabulary. perhaps it was not so much time he lacked (we know he practised unbelievably hard, for hours at a stretch, day after day, honing the technique which would give him the command to back up his weirdness, his otherness) as encouragement: the reason he had so much time to devote to his private practice was because he rarely got work between 1950-59 and found far too few opportunities to meet likeminded souls. the desperation to communicate that comes across in the amazing urgency and power of dolphy's tone and in his many repetitions during 1961-63 (like monk, he must keep repeating the message until they get to hear it)... one disadvantage for us of dolphy's having died so young is that his discog has cried out to be expanded, and thus fills up with mediocre recordings on which our hero strives vainly to find the support he needs from those around him (of course there are happy exceptions), and settles instead for saying what he already knows he can say; that desperation suggests it was not just time which was missing. in any case, by 1964 dolphy was moving beyond the limitations his fascination with parker and bop had forced upon him: he was really starting to think in terms of breaking out of western music altogether, by the sound of it (and so much the better).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

boston 2005 emendations

time is tight at the moment, but - with the help of a correspondent, who kindly provided an mp3 version of the original flacs (see comments) - i have just today downloaded this concert and wanted to clarify some details which are incorrect in the accompanying post. let me say first that these corrections are NOT intended to make the original poster look stupid, nor offered by way of a "slapped wrist": rather, i am concerned that accurate information should be given out wherever possible, hence i try and correct such mistakes when i can. there is nothing personal in this whatsoever.

firstly, this is not the "diamond curtain wall sextet", since the music itself is not dcw, but rather gtm. the opening themes of both pieces make this abundantly clear. [in saying this i am also belatedly answering a challenge which one user of that website threw down last year, when he asked whether any listeners could tell the difference between the two; i didn't bother to give a detailed answer at the time, as i did not recognise it as a genuine question..!] to be more specific, both pieces are third species, accelerator class gtm. (fwiw, i have never personally come across any dcw recordings by groups larger than a quartet; often they are trios. also, as we know, dcw pieces always make much use of digital electronics.)

the first set may indeed be comp. 345, since it certainly does resemble the victoriaville recording from earlier in the same year; the opening themes are not identical, but small differences in the performance may easily account for this. the second set is not, however, comp. 39 (which is, according to restructures, an unrecorded creative orch. piece dating from 1974 - in any case, the opus number predates gtm by a good couple of decades) - and it cannot be comp. 399 (as the file itself is titled) either: that one has yet to be recorded, and may not even have been written yet! perhaps it is comp. 349? who knows...

finally, the personnel/instrumentation: bynum will presumably have been playing trumpbone rather than trombone (this is why i myself prefer the general designation "brass" for thb), and pavone usually plays both violin and viola; more importantly - as b's announcements at the end of each set confirm - the bassist on this date was carl testa, not chris dahlgren. (the paras regarding the 2005 philadelphia and victoriaville concerts are a little confusing, as is the partial list of performances: in talking of the "first" date, or the "only one officially documented", the poster presumably is referring to this specific sextet line-up, but of course the personnel often varies a little from concert to concert.)

that's it for the corrections... hope everyone enjoyed the music!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

garden(s) of myriad delights

last night* i did something i've never (properly) done before: sat down and took in an entire gtm performance without doing anything else at the same time... probably i have avoided doing this before, certainly that is the way it works out. the single gtm performance with which i am most "familiar", and therefore the one i chose for this, is the 2004 london quintet - and of course technically i did sit through that one the first time around without any distractions, since i was in the audience! but although back then i sat perched on the front of my chair pretty much throughout, eyes and ears wide open, i didn't yet have any idea of how to hear the music - and therefore didn't, though it vastly increased my own appreciation of b's genius anyway; but the music's genius, the shape and character of the music itself, was not revealed to me at that time; and in listening recently to the horn solos in particular, i have become very keenly aware of just how much my hearing has sharpened up in certain respects, over the last few action-packed (in armchair mileage terms!) years. to put it another way, i am now in a position to appreciate just how dense these soundscapes are in terms of actual musical events and detail - not that i am claiming to pick up every one of those details myself, far from it.

and, well... what more can i say than... it is incredible, incredible music, so simple and so complex all at once; simple because the freedom allowed to each player in terms of personal expression is total, hence at times it actually sounds (for seconds at a time, and only to the focussed ear) as loose as a jam session... and complex, well, one need hardly elaborate on how complex it is: a detailed map or verbal explication would be very long and complex indeed. growing out of the opening theme, the music never thereafter repeats at all, though the theme (of course) comes and goes - generally changing its voicings each time, in the manner of the great repetition series, comps. 6f and 40(o); but the sheer density of musical events was dizzying, now that i had finally taken the plunge and tried to take in the whole damn thing. and of course i didn't succeed... at times my excitement boiled over into internal monologue, rather than my being distracted as such - the music was far too fulfilling and too thrilling for that... what surprised me somewhat was how physical my own response to the music became: i found myself moving really quite strangely under the summons of several different (explicit/implicit) pulses! but after a while i realised that i was also mirroring the movements thb in particular made, while performing the actual music... bobbing and darting at times, like a sparring boxer...

... and the three ideas i want to repeat here are: organic (out)growth, infinite potential and the examination of the shocking. [repeat: i've touched on all these things before in previous posts... but the most obvious disadvantage of my stream-of-consciousness writing "style" is that not even i can always remember what i did or didn't write in a given post... that applies especially to much of last year's output, so this all bears repeating..!]

so, organic growth: i've talked this up before with reference particularly to the improvised events which the music generates, but in truth it refers more properly to the very foundations of the music itself. it breathes and has a (complex) pulse, has its own composite identity: this not so much an example of what b. "learned" from euro free improv, more an explanation of how he was able to bring so much to the table himself, when he met the european masters on their own turf; the aacm wizards were already performing these group rituals, creating shared spaces for interaction and exploration. when the two b.s met, it really was a true meeting of minds... and i (now) hear that same "auric glue" connecting the five players on the festival hall date (and in much gtm). this in turn leads to:

- the infinite variety of possibilities which the templates hold (barely!) within themselves, variety which is made possible by the organic, many-minded genius of the group voice; no revisit would see the same events witnessed, hence the territories are infinitely explorable. [yes... the same is true of the "jazz" approach to music in general, but no, not on this scale..!]

- and the single most important point may yet turn out to be the examination of the shocking, since this above all is where braxton shows how far he has travelled along (personal) spiritual paths: within b's musical spaces, all manner of violent atrocity is permitted, because in here it is safe: all that is human must be acknowledged at this time, and within these nurturing environments even grotesque and brutal images may be examined in close detail, given full and free expression - but in a space within which they can be received neutrally and with equanimity. the value of this service, to the human race as a whole... cannot yet be told. (but then we don't yet know how we are gonna end up...) again, it is not unique to braxton: other great minds from the aacm have birthed similar systems...

... but in 2004, this music was really chewing away at the coalface, acting as that much-discussed, seldom-encountered cutting edge we all hear so much nonsense about; here, boundaries actually were being flung back. and that's above all what i took from last night's contest of pleasures: this is truly the sound of fully-involved, informed and committed collaborators, grappling joyously with b's music; it is present in 1985 too, and in between, and it is to be found earlier also; but not always in 1976, when a section of the working band was still locked into the groove of free jazz rhythm section... far from "peaking" in the seventies, this man was barely getting started. and yes, you can call gtm avant-garde if you so desire, and with impunity: music in general is still, surely, a long way from catching up.

* comments

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

braxtothon '08: session 010 - context/summary

so what happened to dortmund? or, the facts in the case of grandma's apple crumble

[hallowe'en, 1976 - the penultimate date for this version of the band (and the penultimate station for braxtothon phase three) resulted in what would eventually be regarded as a classic recording: dortmund 1976, first released in 1991, long after the final date for the band had joined the latter days of wheeler in a few record collections (in the form of the montreux/berlin concerts). dortmund is considered a peak recording by many people, and i used to think of it in those terms myself; writing about it turned out to be problematic. here's how i eventually decided to solve this particular problem: put all the asides and preamble regarding dortmund in one place, appending a brief track-by-track at the end; the detailed account from the actual braxtothon session will then follow separately. those who just want the summary, skip down to the last section..!]

i've been thinking a lot about gourmets lately... yes, gourmets, because surely they are among the very harshest and most demanding of critics: every last tiny detail must be just so, just so... and of course it is never quite is, not in practice. there is an ideal standard fixed in the memory, against which all other offerings must be measured in the here-and-now... ineluctably, there will always be a little something found wanting. this is not to say that critics of the performing arts do not have the same tendencies, the same desire for an ideal/ imaginary perfection: some respected film critics have been terrible for this, and we all know that music critics can go the same way too..! no, but there is a difference, and i'll tell you why:

- the food critic's ideal standard exists only in memory and can never be verified. that first life-changing experience, still so vivid in his* mind, sitting in his grandmother's kitchen as tastes and sensations explode in his mouth... still vivid, yes, the whole tableau remains engraved on the memory in fine detail. but are the details accurate? the experiencer was a child, the rememberer is an adult... and of course the answer is no. we may intuit what the critic must hide from himself: that if he were somehow, magically, able to revisit his beloved grandma's heavenly pudding, which melted in his mouth and transformed his world, could sample it with his professional, educated palate... he would be shocked to find the fruit slightly overcooked, the seasoning a little imbalanced; the topping itself rather disappoints with its textures and lacks flavour... not really bad, of course - but awful nonetheless: the sheer lack of perfection, itself, would topple an edifice which has been already a short lifetime in construction. not that this will actually come about... small wonder, then, that the passing years simply enshrine the original moment ever more in the memory.

unfortunately, critics of the arts do not generally have the same excuse (if that's what it is). in many cases their formative experiences are (partially) repeatable, their ideal standards can be verified; they just usually won't be, or not with honesty. our severe movie critic, who insists that nothing made in these last few godless decades can ever hope to match the cinematic marvels he was privileged to witness as a boy, has revisited those same marvels on many cherished occasions; and of course each time he does so, his face becomes that of a child again, lit up with innocent wonder and rapt fascination. we all know what his face looks like the rest of the time, since this is the only way most critics will ever suffer themselves to be photographed: head tilted back slightly, chin rested on one hand, index finger pointing upwards to the cranium... one eyebrow is cocked, the whole saying clearly i have seen it all before... now impress me if you can! but would he ever dare to bring this lofty attitude to the hallowed shrine of his youthful joys?

in the case of music... well, the experience of a live concert can never fully be recaptured by listening to a recording of it, for sure, but in many critics' cases the first formative experiences seem to involve recorded, not live music - and i would bet that in all cases there are cherished recordings which fall into the same category as the film critic's monochrome masterworks: again, it need hardly be added that the revisiting of those recordings is only ever permitted under the right circumstances, and with all the associated memories, all the emotional scaffolding put back in place beforehand. a strong element of self-deception will always be entailed, because at all costs the shrine must never be desecrated. the implications are unthinkable.

of course, it also follows that with unchecked, idealised standards... poor reality never can quite match up.

* * *

all this above, which brings up to date some of my thoughts on the business of criticism, does and doesn't apply to me and my old mate dortmund. when i say old, we only go back four years or so; i didn't have a shrine erected to it. (and i'm unlikely to have done, since i desecrated most of my own shrines over the course of the last few years.) but there were echoes of that tendency, shall we say. when i wrote above that the album is considered a peak recording by many people, that is to say, almost everyone that's heard it, apparently. i've yet to read a bad word about it, and i myself used to get very excited sometimes when talking or even just thinking about this album - ! furthermore, it was my usual suggestion for a beginner's point of entry: everything the newcomer might have expected and everything they wouldn't expect - warmth, humour, excitement, jazziness etc etc - can pretty much be found here, in one neat package.

even the circumstances under which i got the album seemed charged with significance: i knew from reading about it (some while before i had fixated upon braxton as a special interest) that i definitely wanted this one, and i eventually snapped it up at the royal festival hall in 2004, waiting for b's quintet set to start (they had a music shop in the foyer back then). that performance, already semi-legendary, really fired my interest and enthusiasm... and so on: back home, played the album, loved it; played it again the following june when someone pointed out it was b's birthday, loved it again, etc. (considered reviewing it for an online retailer, never got round to it...!)

...and here's where i was guilty of behaving like our critic(s), above: during the period oct/nov '06-summer '07, when my ears became properly attuned to the sound of my music within this stuff, which they hadn't been (countless hours wasted before that on hard bop etc - these were not languages i spoke, so had few messages for me), i was hearing so much "new" music on a daily basis that i had no time to revisit my own collection; didn't update my impressions of dortmund, simply "ported over" my previous crystalised opinion(s) of it and rattled the same lines off whenever the subject came up. at c#9, even after i joined the "priesthood", i was happy to talk of the album as a classic, a necessary addition to any braxton collection etc - without bothering to check whether i still thought that, whether the album still sounded as good to my newly-reattuned ears.

and what happened next? by october '07, c#9 was wound up and i'd thought about starting a braxton blog, joined forces with mcclintic sphere instead... and then the braxtothon voyage began, with the sort of fireworks i had never expected, and my hearing was reattuned again. after that first week i pretty much put on hold any listening to recordings i had which were obviously now in a braxtothon queue (a few exceptions as previously discussed), but then something else unexpected happened last spring, just as another phase of the voyage was kicking off: i played some braxton to a friend and he loved it (as described here). hence, the next time i saw this same friend (again, the evening of a day which took in several sessions) it seemed natural enough, in this instance, to play dortmund, even though it meant skipping forward slightly, bending my own guidelines: i already had numerous impressions of the album from before - though as to when i myself had last listened to the whole thing..? - and we were not going to be sitting in solemn silence now, so it didn't really count as cheating...

... but the trouble was, i still heard enough to pick up the first hints that something vital was missing. when it came to the actual session, this was made that much clearer... by this time, it now seemed to me, braxton and lewis were both playing the music at such an advanced level that holland and altschul could no longer really keep up, the overall effect being that the two horns were dragged backwards, down to the level at which the whole band could play together. all those same exciting qualities and great moments that i remembered were still there: but as to the album itself, the entire performance... surely nowhere near as elevated as i had previously thought.

that's ok with me... as i've said before, i am committed in principle to honesty and rigorous self-examination, to challenging my own prejudices (maybe one at a time!) and to updating my opinions where necessary... and as i've said before, if i'm doomed to discover that many things i once loved are not quite the apotheoses i once took them for, i also sometimes find new reasons to appreciate certain old favourites even more. besides, the deeper and more wide-ranging pleasures and satisfactions i find in the music which doesn't leave me feeling that something is missing... these make it all worthwhile.

- and that, in case you had been wondering, is what happened to dortmund.

* * *

just to get any possible anticipation/anticlimax out of the way now, here is the condensed run-down (and this is a one-off, not something i plan to do routinely from now on): 40f is a wonderful new piece to being with, childlike in its simplicity and yet also inherently complex, bursting with possibility - most of which seems to go unexplored in what turns out to be a shortish, rather meandering rendition; it mutates seamlessly into 23j, which is far stronger here than the underfuelled version from montreux eighteen months earlier; music stops, applause (surprises me every time); the repetition series 40(o) - like its predecessor 6f (aka "73 kelvin", etc) - never did become a mere routine piece, and here it disintegrates before coalescing again, then breaking up again, an enjoyable recital; 6c is of course a deservedly famous(ish) piece, another superb circus march in miniature: playful, evocative, and hauntingly memorable, it supports many of lewis' strengths without pointing up the rhythm section's limitations; but it does actually take a while to get going, even so. finally, 40b begins cold as the march dies away - and this odd little moment of bathos prefigures (what is now) my lasting impression of the concert. the "old shoe" quality to the (collective) holland-altschul sound by this stage can become most apparent on this sort of mid-tempo number, which perhaps partly explains why i always now seem to emerge from the album with a slight feeling of deflation, something i certainly did not experience during those few years when i told anyone who'd listen that the album was an all-time classic. but - and here is the punchline which i didn't mention in any of the above - those previous times when i "listened" to it, i was treating it as ambient or background music, while doing other things. and as i know all too well by now, that really isn't the same as listening... not at all.

- again, let's just get the grading out of the way now: CCC. it's too good to be anything less, there are many excellent qualities to it and it could still represent one good point of entry for a newcomer, in principle; at the same time, i really feel it suffers by comparison with what's already been achieved earlier in the year... to give the jazz library guys their due, they picked one of the two obvious highlights from this album, namely 23j, surely the best version we have of this composition so far; yet it adds nothing to our understanding of the band to know that they play extremely well on this sort of piece. as for 40b, this tune suffered more than any other from the defenestration of my own "rulebook": a later version, with piano, ruined me for any version without one, before i could get this far in the journey. also... but that's enough, for now..! next time out will be the details ;-)

* comments

Sunday, March 29, 2009

braxtothon '08: session 004 (+)

- what can i say? not only did this session take a full year to yield any (written) fruit, it got neglected in my memory to the extent that i remembered it being rather less interesting than it is; well... even then, i can see how that happened, but... in any case, the bremen boot turned up just in time to give me a boot up the behind and here i am, belatedly making amends.

still seems like a very understated way to wave bye-bye to kenny wheeler though...

session 004: the montreux concert
date: 20th july 1975

restructures link

- long slow calls over darkened waters, an atmosphere of controlled uncertainty... this already seems familiar in itself, just altschul's soft, slow-time solar explosions flashing in the background recall any number of earlier pieces for this group; dark mystery, curiosity - edge, tension; then the unutterable beauty of two fragile (yet inwardly strong) voices crying out together from beyond the dark... yes, we've been to these parts before, but each distant seashore has its own scents and sights, even those from the same stretch of coastline; spookily, this particular soundscape begins almost identically to comp. 23e before branching out to reveal itself as a "mirror twin", non-identical, of similarly solemn and spectral apparel but not, this time, schizophrenic: comp. 40n is built on a drone, and though the dynamics are toyed with expertly by holland in due course, it's 99% implied: one continuous mood is sustained throughout the explication of the theme.

the key difference - the detail which remained tugging at the composer's sleeve even as 23e was perfecting itself and getting ready for the group ritual to come in new york - is that of a monophonic line which, this time, bifurcates into a simple counterpoint; just this one subtle detail, combined with the unreleaseable tension of the static drone, provides a completely different set of outcomes (from those explored by 23e) from almost the same set of musical basics. and, like its twin, it generates a very rich and wide-ranging cluster of exploratory spaces for the players (and lucky observers) to visit.

holland, who maintains the drone so steadily during the theme statement that he is easily overlooked in the mix after a short while, is so far on top of this part of his game by now that he is able to suggest with a tiny gesture the vast dynamic and structural wreckage his bow could wreak: having wavered the drone ever so slightly just once, he eventually turns up the dynamics just the tiniest notch, reminding us of that mad, astral-travelling twin (locked away upstairs for the time being) before releasing the spell altogether and depositing us at the first free space, where all sounds are possible. and on into another, which holland then proceeds to fill himself as reward for getting us here; his unselfconscious swipes with the bow then seem at once charming and (suddenly, dangerously) lifeless - yet in the most natural way this opens in turn into a star-field for all the players to inhabit, calling out to each other as birds at dusk or dawn; as with other "deep exploration" pieces, this template offers great potential variety and freedom, thus tending to create individual performances which are experienced as a succession of (un)related scenes or areas; but this journey is more or less haunted by our solemn, spectral guide, the overall effect lasting as long as that lonely clarinet abides. by the time the counter hits 8.00 and the alto is out, we know we are already hurrying along to a date with another guide altogether, to visit somewhere completely different through a totally different type of piece. what we've just heard has been full of close, close listening and is quite demanding of a concert audience (esp. if this actually was an opener, as seems likely), yet the point where it becomes most abstract is also where a distant vehicle begins approaching at speed: now without any forced or awkward trickery, all the scenery is being changed piece by piece until a treat is soon ready to be served, another of the leader's neo-bop lines.

comp. 23j, then - yep, trumpet and sax going at it, again... hammering along, holding back the pace a bit midway through, "hanging time" to get some of that descending-steps stuff b. does so well (comp. 52 springs to mind) - this one is more edgy than (the now dog-tired) 23b, it's a real edges-and-corners tension vehicle, intelligent entertainment if ever there was any... and like previous such stuff, this one contains a not-so-cunningly-concealed alto solo space within it. b. is so assured at this point, so happy to take his time in setting up a complex and sectional narrative - altschul for some reason plays harder on this than on (the similarly-paced) 23b as well, so there's plenty of grist for the mill; b. really toys with the time and pulse in his solo, not just chopping it up but somehow seeming to approach always from a different direction - overall he treats it like a bop solo (at first) but fucks all that shit up as only he can, takes all manner of liberties; and one would say it's a classic studio solo if it weren't being laid out live, there onstage, with no safety net... but of course, already we have been here before - and after minutes elapse and elapse, a little devil coughs and taps me on the shoulder, reminding me that the quiet guy with the beard and the terrible sweater is still standing there forlornly, holding a soundless trumpet. poor kenny, yet more standing around for him after all this faithful service... still, the bird must sing, and besides the audience will want to see, hear that too; the inevitable peaks in b's solo are very hot and intense when they do, finally, arrive; but lo and behold, he's instantly refreshed and is off again, firing off his own improvised, elasticated version of the theme's switchback contours then taking yet further flights of his limitless imagination... and another peak; until, at last, a short and potent series of burrs and pecks signals the end of the song.

- and even then it's more bass, first... holland twangs away, all just sounding very familiar to my ears by now, this stuff; though the crowd is very generous in due course, but it's not one of his more inspired efforts and - if the truth be known - the momentum is now lost. this particular mix is not yet quite volatile enough, once the teacher has finished up and let the class in... but that's kind of nit-picking: when wheeler finally does get a word in, he does play both prettily and expressively (just as well...), it is a good solo and (shame on me) i hadn't really retained that from the original session at all. when braxton reappears, they hover in midair for a moment or two, again recalling 23b - or 6i (or "see-saw", for that matter), and then there is a bizarre, rare miscommunication, confusion over the beginning of the restatement, which recovers quickly of course and takes us out. [i do like that spiky theme, to my ears so much more him than 23b.]

* * *

as (vinyl) side two begins, we are fading in on the tail end of a percussion solo, and claps for whatever it was we just missed - a clarinet now begins drawing those eerie lines in the dark (beautiful every time) - this a perfect example (if i may) of why the set-lister's task is such a nightmare, because from the mapless explorer's pov, where are we? the sleeve insists comp. 40(o) but i've been there before, loads of times in fact, we're nowhere near there, wha - ohhh, actually there it is, coming up now. eventually you get there - these long, spacious link-phases have so many alluring details just in themselves that one can (often) no longer tell what is territory and what freely improvised. well, that's a pretty good achievement for this band i reckon (albeit of course others did the same thing too - hey, this isn't a competition, we're all in this together, remember..?)...

- just before the actual 40(o) turnoff, wheeler's few phrases would serve as his international musical passport. - then we're together on the approach road as such, all the attacks getting synchronised before the actual theme hoves into view. then the leader is off, up and down the sequence like lightning, everyone with him at once the next time round; he and (muted) wheeler seem somehow to be occupying entirely different, immiscible tonalities which never merge; the mute dropped, ringing bell-tones now lose that (pure-contrapuntal) effect, yet it's a thrilling sound and offers (yet again) an entirely different facet of this very familiar scene. bass alone, then the contrabass monster is among us, and that's what i'm talking about - right there - yeah, i love this version of this piece, i must admit. (varies so much, from night to night... to night.) this never stands still, at all - everyone is busy hunting for new angles on it, right up until the restatement.

* * *

pretty good stuff, then... so, what else was played? what have we lost? and yes - this the final farewell to the long-serving brassman, as it appears in the discog - bit subdued, isn't it? one and a half sides of vinyl, and we didn't even get to hear much of him... yes, and to be fair it's right there in my original notes: wheeler's (eventual) solo on 23j "a cracker", "full of energy and imagination"... but i forgot all about it - that's because already then (right there in the session, last spring, my mind already halfway there on the cliffs, over at my friend's place...) those same notes wonder how long they could have run with this - i was by now finding it hard not to hear the band as "crying out for change, to keep the music fluid and creative".

yet when i got back to the music again (last night! and yes, about a year to the day since the original session 004) there was nothing wrong with wheeler's playing at all, just that there is not really enough room for him in there. look, it happened again, as always in the recorded canon - the leader plays him totally out of sight in terms of airtime. and yet we know it wasn't always like this; but then those were the times (bremen again) when the leader himself wasn't quite so fired up and, good as they are in their own way, they would never be the dates which made it to cuscuna's "magic desk". meantime... 23j - this is where my (already) dortmund-contaminated ear just cannot help missing lewis's sheer muscle. it's a firecracker of a piece, and the quartet with wheeler simply doesn't have the power for it... they could build up huge amounts of power a different way, of course - let's not forget those magical incantations, mercurial 23e, and saturnine 40n... but the time for that band is done; wheeler will take the ballad obsession away with him and rock with it (as it rather seems to me... i know others greatly cherish this man), and meanwhile... the rest of us have places to be, and the braxtothon needs to get its lazy arse back to '76 sharpish.

(grading? that one is for the album, so i don't even know yet... anyone who's curious has to wait for berlin..!)