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..!)


Anonymous said...

"... this the final farewell to the long-serving brassman ..." - not quite, actually. The quartet continued to perform at least up to autumn of that year, as evidenced by an FM broadcast of a gig in Boston, October 21st.

centrifuge said...

" it appears in the discog" - i.e. this is the latest official recording we have of him (at time of writing). i could possibly have made that clearer in the first place...