Thursday, April 29, 2010

braxtothon phase 4: session 011a

- and we're finally there: the last concert given by the '76 quartet (or at least the portions of it which made it onto record)...

session 011a: the berlin concerts (quartets)
date: 4th november 1976

restructures link

[it's (maybe) worth pointing out that the berlin segment of the original double album - the montreux/berlin concerts - commences halfway through side two (of four, obviously); this may sound a little unbalanced, with only a side and a half given over to the '75 band, until one recalls that the fourth side is entirely filled by the orchestral piece (session 011b, article to follow). this therefore rather neatly splits the two quartets' contributions into a side and a half apiece. (yes, there is more from the berlin performances than from montreux, but given the special circumstances this is wholly appropriate.) in the listening sessions, the montreux and berlin segments were separated of course (*1), so that comp. 6c marked the beginning of the session; but this would not have been how most vinyl listeners would have experienced it (unless they chose to do something similar, necessitating some very precise work with the stylus!). since we are presently considering an album, featuring selected highlights from a performance rather than an unedited concert, i just think it's worth bearing all this in mind. and now..!]

1. the old "london bus" phenomenon (as it's known on this side of the pond): a composition waits years for a recording and then two come along at once. composed back in 1967, the original circus march has been "played... in many different contexts both in america as well as europe" (*2), but this was the first time it got officially released; of course, a while later the dortmund concert came out too, thus providing the modern listener with two renditions from consecutive concerts. [i have at least one later version on a bootleg recording - from 1983, also with lewis - but none from earlier than 1976. exactly which band(s) played it, and when, i couldn't say; and that of course reminds us of the impossibility of my self-appointed task, namely to track the music's development over time (*3); but as i've said before, the piece ideally suits lewis and it doesn't surprise me to see it on successive setlists for this version of the quartet. (i really can't see how it would have worked with wheeler... though very possibly it was tried..?)]

- this time, at least as far as the recording is concerned, there is less of a gradual buildup. the track opens with holland counting out a march tempo, woodblock taps from altschul, and appropriately light-hearted sounds from the two horns - right away, the familiar atmosphere is conjured up. there is a little preamble before the main theme is joined: and lewis is on fine form, playing with such easy humour that his terrific speed in these opening moments might be overlooked (though maybe it wasn't at the time, by attentive audience members (*4)); for that matter, the leader sounds fantastic also, captured in close, intimate clarity here... this concert having been professionally recorded for an official release, there is very little echo in evidence and no audience noise (at least, not during the actual performance). funnily enough, though both of these things would usually count as positives for a live recording, in the case of this number the end result sounds a little lifeless compared to dortmund, with its huge, spacious echo and noisy crowd - it just so happens that those qualities are suited to this piece! still: if this rendition somewhat lacks ambience, it makes up for that in due course.

with so little preamble, the main theme begins around 0.42. this is the one part of the piece which is largely predictable, of course. by 1.50, lewis is blasting away at the audience with such force that the lack of echo on the recording is almost defeated; but this is something of a red herring, because for the most part, this comes across as a more restrained, slightly subdued rendition compared to the previous one; shortly after the 'bone's blasphemous blats, the leader whips out the contrabass sax - but although this sounds fantastically suitable here, things are kept fairly low-key in terms of momentum and by 3.15 b. is back on alto; then again, when proceedings do reach a peak later, it gets pretty heated. in fact, the intensity ebbs and flows considerably this time around, and after some very clear, very high notes from the leader (which have my ears temporarily wondering what horn he's on after all), the 4 minute mark sees the vehicle gathering steam... which is nevertheless allowed to subside again. my initial impressions (during the actual session, and never mind how long ago that took place...) were that this version of the piece is "less spicy and urgent, but with deeper and probably more rewarding detail to make up for the missing atmosphere".

from the 5-min mark on, the march is completely broken up and are we in open space. lewis delights me once again around 6.00ish, with some very simple variations which manage to sound both ironic and beautiful at once. [in the right - some would say "wrong"! - frame of mind, i could go on and on about the trombonist's incredible, unmistakeable tone on his instrument... just as i could about the leader's.] typically enough, by now the march is back in force, and the two horns are working up one of their "shared thoughts" - but this time, instead of exchanging kisses (a la dortmund), they are looking for something else, and in due course they find it. by 6.45, a simple rhythmic motif has been settled on by them both, and this intensifies over the next few repetitions, altschul responding, the three of them stoking a fire as 7 mins ticks off, building towards the aformentioned peak: by 7.40 these three are at full throttle, buzzing away like a swarm of angry hornets, though it must be said that it takes holland much longer to get in on the act (*5). by 8 mins, a scorching climax is reached and from here, of course, there is nowhere to go but down, the accumulated energy gradually elapsing back into the mix, holland belatedly getting excited and playing a touch too fast (8.25 ish) as he sets up the march once again for the close. the horns let us down gently with the restatement... and a fairly schizoid incarnation of this glorious piece is complete, warm applause now audible for the first time as the band take a break.

2a. appropriately enough, this breather marks the end of the vinyl side 2. side 3 is unindexed and contains one single track, but this is actually one of those "mini-suites" which were the (concert) norm around this time, comprising two different territories (*6). first up, it's our old friend comp. 6f, the original kelvin-series repetition structure, appearing here for the last time in the official discography. that is to say - the last time chronologically, and therefore from the perspective of the braxtothon. the donaueschingen duo version was recorded earlier the same year, for example - though not released until '94. (and who's to say that other concerts from this period won't yet make it onto disc..?) still: regardless of what was available when, and notwithstanding lewis' evident appetite (at least back then) for playing the repetition structures, this is now the fifth time i've covered a recording containing this piece; it's even the third with lewis, after the wildflowers one-off and the aformentioned duo. no, those other two did not feature the working group, but still... i don't need to hear any more versions of this piece unless something spectacular happens..! and nothing out of the ordinary does happen this time, so for once i'm going to free myself (and indeed the reader!) from the tyranny of analysis by the clock, and just make a few observations.

the reading sounds perfect despite a very brisk tempo, but this is not really anything unusual for this band. (it may have been the case that the rapid tempo was necessary to prevent the rhythm section from going off the boil..? they could play this blindfold by now. then again, fast is more or less normal for this number.) with the lengthy theme out of the way, b. is not long in whipping out the monster, and since there is not really any "hat-changing" in this rendition to speak of (cf. my impressions of this much earlier version with the same r-section), there ensues what is effectively a recital for the contrabass clarinet. not that there'sanything wrong with that, and indeed it leads to some pretty good interplay with the trombone, lewis' subvocalisations sounding witty and appropriate as usual. now come the flutters and kisses (rather than in the circus march, where i looked for them), with holland and altschul laying out; holland bows his way back in, the audience applauds the horns graciously, and the bass and sparse drums are then joined by flute, which i haven't heard for a while. we are still very much in the original territory as the 7.00 minute mark is passed (just in case anyone needs a signpost here...), but the most noteworthy occurrence is b's tiny quote (7.29) from what i wrongly identified at first as "lonely woman" but is actually "'round midnight"; as is very often the case, b. reminds me more of dolphy on flute than he does at any other time (just listen to those lovely swoops). some carefully-maintained tension eases off into a very busy percussion solo, interrupted just briefly (9.05ish) by a quick, urgent horn signal (*7) which foreshadows the fast-approaching next territory.

2b. altschul builds up a fair head of steam with his solo, and this prepares us for something very different. when the leader's clarinet enters with the trombone, we are in the familiar position of cruising along at gathering speed, heading down the slip-road to the next territory, elements of which pop into view as the two horns fire staccato bursts back and forth. the bass is locked into the groove by now and when the horns drop out briefly, we know the next theme is imminent. sure enough, at 10.13 sharp (*8) the horns re-enter in lock-step and comp. 40k begins. this features a long, complex theme which is immediately reminiscent of earlier "neo-bop" pieces we've heard from b's pen (comps. 23b and 23j etc), but even trickier to negotiate and way harder to predict, winding as it does up and down in a series of staircases or crenellations, pausing at intervals before resuming; the whole theme takes just over a minute to play in its entirety and actually ends up reminding me most of all of (the decidedly unjazzy) comp. 23m. - this only in afterthought, though, analysing the piece and checking for "siblings"; it really is another one of the professor's skewed jazz lines, nothing more experimental than that. despite the bop flavouring of the theme, the instrumentation at once suggested to me (the second version of) jimmy giuffre's first trio, with (valve-)trombonist bob brookmeyer. (*9)

immediately after the theme - which is tricky enough for a few tiny misses and semi-fluffs to crop up along the way - solo space is ceded to lewis. now, in the case of a clarinet number, this is not the leader's main axe, so it's not particularly unusual for someone else to get first bite of the solo cherry; but it's also possible that our man has learned from earlier concerts with this sideman and doesn't want the trombone to be the last thing the audience remembers hearing..! the german audience, most (if not all) of them surely well versed in the virtuoso playing of albert mangelsdorff, will be lapping up the magnificent trombone display they are witnessing tonight, and are bound to go home talking about it; but that doesn't have to be the only impression they take away with them! (*10) following lewis at this stage in the proceedings is a pretty shrewd move... the other thing that occurred to me (straight away, in the original session) was that lewis's solo, at three and half minutes, occupies far more room than was usually taken by his (rather more self-effacing) predecessor in the brass chair. there's no way round it, lewis just has a much bigger presence, and not just physically.

lewis' solo begins boppishly enough (in principle - in practice none of the bop-era trombonists could play with anything like this sort of articulation), and we know from previous hearings that he can drop in and out of that style when it pleases him; but within thirty seconds he's already unleashing some of the formidable tricks he has up his sleeve: delicate smears and slurs, tremendous speed, and most of all the whole is demonstrably a long-form construction, just like one of the leader's. i repeat, trombone aficionados in the audience will be drinking this in with delight... and the band benefits from it too, in the interplay which is on offer. where sometimes (all too often, in my recollection) wheeler's solos were greeted with restraint and general uncertainty, lewis and altschul in particular play off each other very effectively indeed. just before the end of the solo (14.37 in my file), the two connect perfectly on a three-note repetition which neither seems to have set up in any predictable way (*11); this sort of synchronicity just didn't happen with wheeler. (or if it did... i just don't seem to remember it. but...)

b's clarinet solo follows and is just magnificently fluid and exciting... just to make sure that both horn soloists are on the lips of the audience members when they leave..! highlights of this typically complex improvisation include the effortless low/high trills beginning 15.47, a gorgeous bent note at 16.32 - and plenty more of the same, prolonged from 17.40 onwards; from 18 mins on, there is a series of stunningly precise, detailed distorted attacks using varying amounts of subvocalisation - this being a speciality of b's since the early days and ever after (and who knows how many hours of continual practice have gone into it). around 19 mins, shortly before he signs off, our man teases out another delightful series of trills. these are just a few fleeting moments i'm choosing to single out: the entire solo, as is very nearly always the case (*12), rewards close listening. (i am not just gushing for the sake of it here!)

throughout the last eight minutes holland has just plugged away, solid and dependable as ever, never once losing the beat but never actually contributing to anything either. (*13) now he embarks on what was presumably his last ever solo with this band... altschul drops onto soft brushes for this, leaving holland alone in the spotlight as it were, and there's nothing wrong with the solo, which contains a bit of muscle and movement to go with the left-hand acrobatics (always that supremely confident, wonderfully springy tone in his pizzicato playing), but... this is just the sound of tedium for me by now, and in truth it's a relief when it's over. the restatement is then set up in a familiar fashion, by way of a quick free-for-all; and without any fluffs this time, the theme is played out, finishing emphatically with a single stabbed note, which marks the full stop at the end of this chapter in the music's story.


that's not it for the album, don't forget - side four, the creative orchestra performance, is still to come, hence no grading just yet - but as far as i know that is it for this rhythm section, after almost six years. it's been a long journey, and it seems odd to think that there will finally be a change of personnel at the back of the stage from this point on... but in truth it's not before time.

* see comments