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).