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


centrifuge said...

boy oh boy... how long did THAT take to be ready?! so... all those times (esp. recently) when i said the article was ready to be written, it wasn't, not quite. not until last night... yes, last night, 'cos as for what i said about posting before bed, i couldn't keep to that either - i did basically finish writing it, but didn't then have time to post the damn thing..! transferring an article from its typed form to the blog is surprisingly time-consuming... and besides, there were all these pesky notes/comments to be added:

1. this is the title of my cd, reissued as hatOLOGY 557 in 2001, a decade after the original cd which bore the slightly different title *dortmund (quartet) 1976*. details, stickler for, etc ;-)

- doubtless the original issue has its merits. for one thing, the liner notes are longer (i think). but i love the photo that graces the 2001 edition, b. looking every inch the professional academic some time before he actually became one - and gazing, with those long-sighted eyes of his, into a future most of us would not have been able to see.

2. - though not, of course, along with the audience as regards my hearing (continuing to explore and experience) the braxton "book". but then, back in 1976, this would have been impossible..!

3. - specifically, first species gtm with its regular eighth-note themes.
3a. again, this periodic return to the (rhythmic) motif is absolutely typical of gtm later. i really think that a case could be made for comp. 40f as the first "proto-gtm" conception.

4. - every time, as far as i can tell... certainly up till this point in the braxtothon.

5. of course, this earlier example was a very different case, and not just because of the musicians/personalities involved: at moers in '74, wheeler (for reasons best known to himself) attempted to interrupt, or at least comment on, an alto solo - the fact that this occurred during the first number is neither here nor there; an alto solo is an alto solo, it's b's core discipline and is not to be messed with..! lewis, besides having proven himself, elbows his way into a (fairly short) clarinet solo on a piece which is far more of a free-for-all in the first place. again, it's the opening number - but it's a whole different kettle of fish.

6. lewis already sounds as fully in ownership of his voice as he does on (say) *yankees*, significantly later (1983?). just his self-confidence at this early stage is remarkable in itself, but then he had seemingly boundless talent at his disposal.

7. yes, the first part of the concert is presented as a suite; but in this instance it's possible to say *precisely* where one territory ends and the next is joined, even bearing in mind that (as usual) the latter is approached from an angle, not initiated cold. this being the case, there is really no reason why the cd could not have been indexed with the two separate tracks... but it wasn't.

8. the basic ten-note phrase on which the 23j theme is built is, effectively, a "crystallised" braxton master-tag. much later (21st century!), györgy szabados does something quite similar with some of the written horn lines for "trioton", a lengthy piece which - at least in its opening movements - seems to be a meditative dialogue for piano and percussion, which doesn't really need any other instruments. (as the later piece's title suggests, it does eventually incorporate the reedman more fully.)

9. as i mentioned in discussing the montreux concert, this descending "quasi-release" anticipates b's own comp. 52; naturally, it also has antecedents in modern jazz, such as "gingerbread boy" by jimmy heath (as recorded by miles' second great quintet).

10. it's not the only time a quartet concert was performed this way - for some reason i had grown used to expecting seamless sets without breaks, and in the original braxtothon session for dortmund i was quite taken aback to hear the applause.

ok... and that's *quite* enough of that, for the time being ;-)

lee said...

Very exciting (to me) listening convergence just happened. I was thinking about Dortmund (my copy is still packed from a cross-country move) while at work, and I was playing the complete symphonies of Sibelius, recorded by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. I've known of the influence of, say, Cage and other contemporary composers on jazz. but if you have a chance and can scare up a recording of Lahti's rendition of "Tapiola, Op. 112" there is a run right around 5:20 that I would swear was a big influence on Braxton's work of this period (and specifically this recording). In fact, the whole of "Tapiola, Op. 112" retains the feeling of much of Braxton's work of this period, in particular the ebbs and flows, the feeling of the instruments moving in an almost geological space (check Lahti again at 9:30, 10:45, recurrence of the previously mentioned Braxtionian theme around 12:00, and so on).

This reminds me of some of the comments that Muhal and others have made about the limitations of the term "jazz" to describe music that grew out of AACM. Certainly, once you get into Ghost Trance, the music wears its classical influences right out there (what with the fugues, themes in round, etc).

centrifuge said...

lee, thanks for sharing those thoughts... i'm unlikely to be able to check those detailed references any time soon, but it's all most interesting, for sure. and yes, a key aspect of all this is (as mr b has said himself on many occasions) the essential weakness of the term "jazz" when dealing with creative music...

... which is one main reason why i no longer rate the dortmund concert as highly as i used to, though the full details of this thinking have not yet been made public..! (please bear with me... you know how it gets as a new parent!) so it's interesting to see you looking at it from such a different perspective - it would be intriguing to hear some thoughts from you *after* you've played the recording again...

as far as gtm is concerned, this goes so far beyond "jazz" that's it's no longer a helpful term at all really - though (last year, not here) i did find myself saying that it does still qualify as "free jazz" on the grounds that it incorporates (actually, necessitates) free expressions and (solo/simultaneous) improvisations - whilst it clearly is *not* any sort of free improv since so much of the material is written out... doesn't really matter, does it ;-) but i don't think our man has thought of his own composing in "jazz" terms for a long time now.