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


centrifuge said...

rather than resort to the forced infelicity "his/her", or the revisionist "her" (which i always find a bit precious and/or pretentious), i have made my critics male throughout. all this hyper-critical shit is of course a strong tendency dragged forward from my own past, and i have observed it very strong in others, all male; also, somewhere in there is the food critic from the animated movie ratatouille, which made a big impression on me last spring, when the *previous* "problem peak" was being tackled, i.e. n.y. fall '74...

... but of course men by no means have a monopoly on this stuff, and female critics may be just as severe, just as cutting (and just as repressed) as their male counterparts...

Frédito lindo el philistin said...

Thank you Cent' for this very interesting reading. And yes, please, add some details ;o))

I'm putting the hatology disc near the player...It's been some time now.

Take care

centrifuge said...

salut mec, j't'ai pas oublie... not much chance to get to the keyboard for a decent spell at the moment, also the furniture sitation here is getting ridiculous... those details are (basically) on their way, just don't hold your breath quite yet ;-)

Anonymous said...

great work cent. i've only read the first half of this "critique du critique" (sic) so far, which was spot on, am looking forward to reading the rest. it's good to read a reasoned, rational interrogation of this phenomena of self-expression - my own tendency, these days, is to simply say: "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Or as
Woody Allen once noted to the class: "Those who cannot do, teach; those who cannot teach, teach gym."
for the most part, I'd be slotting critics in just under the latter.
(At least most gym teachers, in my formative experience, seemed okay with themselves....and appeared to be getting some. heh heh. okay, maybe they were getting TOO much, and maybe, if the classroom grapevine was to be believed, not all of it was legal.)
Of course, below all of these, and spinning slow circles in their own private circle of Hell, would be....the Broadsheet Columnist. And on that subject, for my own sanity and that of my nearest and dearest, I flatly refuse to be drawn.
Although all of this does beg the question, "are we trying to judge criticism by a glorious, golden-glow chidhood memory-shrine standard of criticism that we experienced...........(etc)

centrifuge said...

lol indeed... a hearty chuckle at the very least :-D

nice to see you here mr s... you are one of several people overdue an email reply from me, do please bear with me {koff} - thanks for your thoughts, as always.