Sunday, February 28, 2010

(there once was a ) music file here

well, a little one: download

- this is the alexander hawkins sextet, as featured in session on a recent edition of the bbc radio programme jazz on 3. hawkins, based in oxford (also home to the locals, the group co-led by pat thomas and alex ward which plays all-braxton sets... or used to at any rate), has been making quite a name for himself in the u.k. over the last few years, and may also be known to stateside readers through his membership of the convergence quartet, which also includes taylor ho bynum.

i didn't manage to record the show myself, and i'm grateful to a correspondent (who wishes to remain anonymous) for sending me this file. it's a relatively low bitrate mp3, for interest only... no, it's not something you can put on your shelf and polish and stroke lovingly, for those who fetishise their music collections in this way... it is nevertheless perfectly listenable! anyway... since i didn't record the whole thing, but only listened to it once, i can't remember exactly what hawkins said about braxton, but it was something along the lines of his being "the main point of reference for contemporary jazz" (eek - yes, the "j-word" was in fact used, i do remember that much). one or two of the hawkins originals in the ensuing set did seem to betray b's influence; but then, after those words came so close to the end of the interview, it's perhaps not surprising that i heard them that way.

ok, now this is where it starts to get a bit complicated. the piece - which i believe was described as a medley, inaccurately if so - is listed on the programme's webpage as comp. 69(1)+6(o)+40(o). actually the letter "o" was replaced by zeros where it occurs, but we'll ignore that... except we can't, quite, because whoever put the setlist together clearly knows relatively little about the braxton canon*1: numbers instead of letters is easy enough to correct in the case of the 6 and 40 series pieces, but is problematic for the other since of course comp. 69(1) does not exist. the obvious substitution to make is comp. 69i; but in practice it is extremely unlikely to be that, since - according to restructures - that particular piece has never even been recorded by b. himself, only by the splatter trio. they almost certainly had access to b's scores; hawkins would not, i think (in any case he doesn't seem overly familiar with the canon himself - he said in the interview that these pieces were originally written for quartet, "but work ok for this group" or words to that effect; but they weren't written for quartet, they are from the creative ensemble books and hence are suited to any small group).

- in any event, i really don't think the first theme we hear is an unrecorded piece, for the simple reason that i'm pretty sure i recognise it -! the more i hear it, the more familiar it seems... but i'll be damned if i can place it, and so far i have not been able to identify it from cross-checking likely recordings. it is definitely not comp. 69j (which seemed like another reasonable possibility), nor for that matter 69h or 69k or... you get the idea. so, please: if anyone can tell me what piece is being played at the start of this file, i will be very grateful!

as for the rest of it - on first hearing, not quite giving the music my undivided attention (though i thought i was listening fairly closely), i didn't hear the other listed pieces either. 40(o) is of course a repetition series, and one i've heard many times in numerous different versions - but i would have been expecting to hear the whole band play the theme, at least, in unison... and i suppose this is what i was (half-!)listening out for. and 6(o) is a gorgeous ballad structure which i would have expected (again) to recognise at once. but if the piece was described as a medley - in which a succession of different themes are played as one unit - that's erroneous: this performance is really (an attempt at) a collage structure, as pioneered by b's great quartets of the mid-eighties. from around 3.15, while the leader continues playing the first composition (or perhaps just improvises), the cello and bass do indeed begin to bow slowly the written bass parts from comp 6(o)*2, or at least i think that's they are (!); and at 5.08, with this slow arco stateliness still in effect, hawkins embarks on a very fast reading of the 40(o) theme, possibly taking a few liberties with the written line by the sound of things (maybe another reason why i didn't pick it first time round).

this approach - the ensemble starts out playing a piece, then one or more members begin playing something else, and later yet another is joined by someone else again, while the rest of the band continue whatever they were doing - is very much in the spirit of the "forces in motion" group, and some kudos is due to hawkins for even trying it. i'm not sure it's an unmitigated success, bearing in mind that for much of the piece, only certain players seem to be playing any composition, the others just doing whatever - but again, maybe this is me rather than them, and subsequent hearings may yet uncover further subtleties as yet undetected. in any case, it's good to hear someone taking this sort of challenge on, and i hope that hawkins continues to develop this concept in future. in the meantime, i hope people enjoy the music... and once again: if anyone can name that first piece for me, with its highly distinctive, "walking" written line - do please leave a comment!

* see comments.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

braxtothon phase 4: session 010 (+) - the details... part 2

(see also part 1; and see here for background etc)

session 010: quartet (dortmund) 1976 (trs. 2-4)
date: 31st october 1976

restructures link

3. - as the applause dies down, the repetition series comp. 40(o) begins. it's a natural way to open the next part of the concert, and lewis seems to exult in these repetition structures - and no wonder, when he himself has such variety in his utterance... and of course, the neat precision with which the band tears through what in theory is a difficult written line - (by now this is routinely) impressive, yet it also hints at the trap into which the leader may now fall, if he's not careful: holland and altschul have basically run out of things to say on this sort of piece, and we could be in danger of getting a rote performance of it. in practice, that's not what happens - but only because b. and lewis spark off each other continually, ignoring the limitations imposed on them. otherwise... there would scarcely be any point in keeping this (or 6f) on the setlist at this point.

as i said before (in the summary), this version is not merely the same picture examined through a series of different filters; it disintegrates completely in the middle, reforming before breaking up again, and this freedom was probably needed for the two hornmen to take the piece anywhere interesting (*1). for all the well-oiled precision of the theme, there's not much in the opening minute to suggest that we're going to get anything special. as the second minute begins, holland drops out of the written line, placing occasional notes instead to provide a different effect (*) as the others plough ahead; then holland and braxton carry the line, lewis furnishing the commentary this time; but all of this mimics what we've heard before in these pieces. as we enter the third minute, the two horns suddenly start hanging back, drawing their attacks out, letting the rhythm section tap out the theme, to which they themselves return only when they wish: this anticipates the greater freedom to come. around 2.45, lewis is sputtering out percussive morse code, b. toying with the germ of an idea, and the bottom end has fallen away completely, to leave us suspended in midair.

as altschul reaches for his (rather uninspired) toy whistle, the two hornmen get down to business: lewis squelching out gaseous bursts, b. (on contrabass sax) grabbing some of that - they return to the theme, drop it again so that 4.00 sees all four players in free space. by 4.15, lewis and the leader are conversing as seagulls, or perhaps sea lions; this then morphs into honks and growls - a whole menagerie of voices supplied by these two, as the bassist drones on; from 5.26, lewis unleashes a glorious few seconds of vocalised blowing, this man's tonal palette so variable, his vocabulary so rich and imaginative! holland (unsurprisingly) returns to the theme first, altschul skittering back in on cymbals, this then coinciding rather beautifully with lewis' high-pitched, honey-sweet offerings (5.45ish). nothing left but to return to the theme in unison; lewis ensures that it remains interesting till the end. yes, the end - they tail off, and once more applause breaks out; this time the break in proceedings seems odd, unnecessary...

4 ... but who knows, perhaps it wasn't intentional. as the written notes die away, they become squeaks and squawks, toots and tweets, and the next piece is upon us already, the audience quickly hushed again. holland, bow in hand, saws out a few simple phrases; little by little, a picture emerges in what is now a familiar fashion.

this, of course, is the wonderful circus march comp. 6c which is gradually being set up before our ears. again, i mentioned briefly in the summary that this is an ideal piece for this particular band - the structure offers great latitude to lewis in particular, while not calling to attention any limitations of the rhythm section - so much so that they played it in successive concerts (unusually) (*2). braxton would go on later to write quite a lot more circus-style music, much of it rather more difficult than this tune; but it’s probably fair to say that none of the later stuff in a similar vein is any more joyful than this. fun and freedom, two qualities which (supposedly) rarely go hand-in-hand in creative music... well, there’s plenty of both written into this piece, which (along with 23j) is one of the obvious highlights of this famous concert.

the set-up is gradual (something which becomes especially noticeable if the piece is heard in isolation from the rest of the album). the two horns open with what could be written patterns, similar to those in the previous number - this being most probably just another example of the “overlapping” of territories which is so common to these situations – and altschul’s rattling snare almost sounds more like the prelude to an execution than the build-up to a high dive... all four players take their time getting ready, eventually easing back completely just before the beginning proper (which is greeted with more warm applause, as well it might be).

the theme, which is cued up by holland’s simple two-note bass phrase to emphasise the march rhythm, is a little more deceptively complex than might appear. haunting and playful at once, a monophonic line drifts downwards in short steps (*3) over three bars, reaching an emphatic halt halfway through the fourth, all the players landing at once and breaking up the march. the line continues with the rhythm still in pause; when the second main section of the line commences, the bass saws out “left (pause) – left (pause) - left-right-left” and this coincides with the monophonic line diverging, a particularly evocative four-note phrase ending in a different place for each horn. this section is then repeated before the march resumes at regular pace, and back round we go. at this point the whistles and parps, together with the bold marching rhythm, place us right in the circus ring. it’s a wonderfully memorable effect: unlike comp.58 (*4), this is a circus march specifically for a small group, so instead of a big brass band theme we have the same sort of idea expressed in miniature; yet b. and lewis between them provide so much atmosphere and variety that the design is brought vividly to life. by the time they leave, the audience may not remember the opening comp. 40f very clearly, but they will surely remember this.

as the piece unwinds and expands, such a simple, magical charm prevails that it’s very easy for the listener just to drift away into it and lose sight of the details altogether. in any case, as the minutes tick by it becomes hard to say how much of what we’re hearing is written out and how much loosely improvised. the basic pattern remains much the same, while the melodies are freely embellished and altered, and this easy freedom really is the key to what’s happening here. above all, the leader and his young sideman are having fun, enjoying themselves while tossing ideas back and forth. the mouthpiece “kisses” which are exchanged around 6.10 are the clearest and most amusing expression of this principle, but it’s alive in every note. and the spirit of exuberant creativity at play here reflects back on the whole performance, making this number almost holographic: around 4.30 we could almost be back in 40f territory, whilst a brief energetic crescendo culminating at 5.15 flings us back towards 23j for just a few seconds, this effect vanishing as quickly as it was summoned, the four players lapsing back effortlessly into the march. around 5.40, lewis sets off a siren which wails away for ten seconds or so; then comes a gorgeous sequence of exchanges between the horns which takes in trills, blarts, parps and actual shouts (from lewis), ending up with those aforementioned kisses: here, more than anywhere else, we are reminded of just how much the two hornmen have in common, and how much, by contrast, b. didn’t have in common with wheeler - on more than occasion the previous year, the leader had proffered similar smacks of the lips, and the trumpeter did not so much rebuff these as not even register them. if comp.6c has waited a long time to get an outing, it’s surely because it’s taken this long for the leader to find a suitable playmate, one truly on the same level.

the intensity increases again, whipping us through the eighth minute and into the ninth, where the pace once more relaxes, everyone winding down again ready for the restatement (which itself is cued up beautifully by a protracted growl from the trombone, starting around 8.25). as that lovely theme plays itself out amid further impromptu utterances from the horns, it seems almost a shame that the concert could not close with this; but in truth it’s not really designed as a closer, and instead it simply fades away...

5 ... to be replaced at once by the theme of comp. 40b. that in itself – starting with the main theme, “cold” like that – is pretty unusual for these concerts, if not unique, and it’s one reason why i always feel a sense of anticlimax about this last piece. the other thing: as i’ve said before, having long since been won over by a version of this piece including piano, i now find it very hard to be convinced by any version without one... single-line instruments simply can’t open up the harmonic structure of the piece to the necessary extent: it always just sounds as if something crucial is missing.

the other other thing, which ultimately is the most significant point (i will get to this in more detail when i run the phase four conclusions article): this is a mid-tempo number, and for some time now holland and altschul have had a horrible tendency to nod off when playing at that speed. (see moers, 1974 and several other instances subsequently.)

so... for all the above reasons, and others which will become clear, this ending number always leaves me feeling let down these days, and has done on every occasion i’ve listened to the album during the last couple of years. that being the case, i don’t really want to dwell on the details too much... but let’s have a look anyway.

it’s a cracking theme, by the way: constructed in tension-and-release segments, it winds its way up and down in two-note skipping rhythm, the same phrasing much used by dolphy in his solos (hopefully many readers will understand straight away what i mean by this), with the release sections more slow-paced; but with just one minute on the clock it’s already impossible to avoid coming back to the same point, because with the theme done and dusted, the first solo is taken by holland... and any accumulated energy is allowed to dissipate at once. it’s as if, having worked the audience quite hard in the first half of the concert, b. now allows them a much easier ride in the second; maybe i’m being unduly harsh there, but from my perspective and at this distance in time, it seems quite urgently the case that what we really needed now was less jazz and more weird stuff, and screw the audience’s expectations... easy for me to say, no doubt. anyway, a fairly relaxed jazz exploration is what we’ve got, and even lewis (who takes over from holland at 3.08 – here, even the first two solos are separated by a brief return to the theme, allowing the crowd to applaud with plenty of warning... sigh, it was the last number i guess) treats this as a fairly standard jazz solo, at least at first. from 4.00 onwards he does start to turn up the heat, with a certain amount of support from altschul (holland just plods away); before he’s done, he’s reminded us all once again of just how fast a trombonist can play and to be fair, the drums do pretty much keep up with him.

at 5.45 ish, with no return to the theme this time, the leader takes over with one of his patent singing phrases, and we are into the second alto solo of the night. and it’s a blinder (as if we would expect anything else by now), a faultless, flowing exhibition of linked ideas which both sings and burns, following its own logic without ever becoming predictable; but as the minutes pass and the solo builds, the backing just sort of dribbles along, the bass in particular very much incidental to what’s actually taking place. oh well, now i find myself wondering whether i really am being too harsh; certainly the audience is appreciative enough, voicing its enthusiasm as b. finally wraps up and hands over to altschul... yes, this being a jazz number, everyone has to take a solo... well, it’s brief and before you know it, we’re back to the theme, and fading out on that memorable four-note phrase from the release. that’s that, and no, it would be very harsh indeed to suggest that anyone left the auditorium thinking “hmmm, that last number was a bit ordinary, i feel all deflated now”; chances are that everyone was buzzing all the way home. all i can tell you is that from my point of view, and that of the braxtothon, something rather important is definitely missing from this last number, and to a lesser extent, from the concert in general. harsh or not, that’s genuinely how i feel about it.

* * *

just in case anyone was wondering, nothing has happened during all these long months (see first comment!) to make me change my mind about the CCC rating for this album. i don’t see it as a career high, and the band is essentially unbalanced at this stage. that’s my story and i’m sticking to it. and, as i said a while ago (that is... i think i said it on here, not just in a mail to someone... can’t find it now!), i would even be hesitant these days about recommending the album as a point of entry to a newcomer, for all its humour and warmth and other human qualities (those same qualities being ones which b’s music is often typically said to lack). why am i hesitant? because this album basically says “free jazz” rather than creative music, and it’s no longer helpful for newcomers to be given that impression. as it is, there are (older) listeners out there who still doggedly insist that b’s “best” music was recorded in the seventies and that it’s all been downhill ever since... these same listeners (who don’t actually deal with the later stuff at all of course, lest it mess up their carefully maintained prejudices) presumably need to think of b. as a “jazz musician” rather than as a composer. old dogs, etc... and they can safely be left asleep; but new listeners need to know that this man was never just a jazz musician, if he was ever one at all.

* see second comment.

* update: see ninth comment, 20th sept.