Friday, July 30, 2010

braxtothon phase 4: session 011b

- this (at long last) is the final part of the final session, terminus for braxtothon phase 4 as such. naturally there is still to come the "autopsy" on the quartet - and speaking of which, don't forget, the curtain has already rung down on that band before this evening's curtain rises; lewis is still very much in evidence here (just a bit)... holland and altschul are notable by their absence.

session 011b: the berlin concerts (creative orchestra*1)
date: 6th november 1976

restructures link

(- see also here and here for the rest of the original double album)

so... exactly who else plays on this has never been established and therefore probably never will be - doesn't really matter, it not being that sort of deal: the support players are there for (carefully-contrived) tonal variety in ensemble sections, brought here for scored parts, not improvising. when i first heard this piece (actually heard it, in a session) i enjoyed it a lot, made a couple of pages of notes, and... retained nothing from it at all as it turned out (and of course it was rather more than a year before i got close to writing it up). listening again last month under far looser conditions, i heard it clearly(ish) as a sort of dual concerto, a showcase for lewis and the leader to do what they haven't had a chance to do much in the quartet dates: soar right out into the depths and explore. and, er, most of other guys are just reading the score and watching the conductor... which is fine... the harpist does get a brief (and rather unexpected) opportunity to shine, finishing the performance off with an interesting tail-piece, unaccompanied, sounding at times (to my ears) more like a phantom duet for harp and spanish guitar.

otherwise - yep, lots and lots of solo work by the two horns; so obviously if you're reading this, you will be interested in that (yes?); but what will there be for us to say about it, that being the case? again, i had a peek at the compostion notes (this time didn't even need to get the books out - restructures has them online for this piece, now known as comp. 63) and sure enough, it is a piece for two single-line instruments and large-scale backup, organised in six sections, open-ended as regards the passages of improvisation - so that a given interpretation, says the composer, may last from ten minutes to ten days. it's pretty much comp. 59 again - but with certain subtle yet important differences: instead of picking as partner a full contemporary/peer in roscoe mitchell (*2), we have the golden boy, the number one student already long since turned collaborator; instead of an all-star chorus chirping in every few bars we have a reticent, respectful backdrop of prearranged sound. of course, "listening" under relaxed conditions i did not pick up the sixfold structure of the piece, but here and now at the end of one (gruelling) stage of the journey and before embarking on the next, i'm not even going to attempt to go into that sort of detail anyway (*3). what, if anything, did i pick up from the actual session and the later follow-up(s)?


a clarinet leads us very quickly into a well-populated space: within seconds, lots of different instruments are on display, announcing themselves briefly in quick succession so that an extremely broad sound palette is established straight away. (there is a terrific clarity to the recording, in no way compromised by the compressed files i'm using for this. may as well keep on saying it.) just after the one minute mark, a tinkling bell, shortly silenced, leads to a pause of several seconds which may indicate the end of the first section.

following this pause, both lewis and the leader are much in evidence, identifying themselves in short order but without being ostentatious about it. (the trombonist's powerful tone gives him away pretty quickly; b., on sopranino sax, is also easy enough to spot but just in case, a little flurry at 1.41 makes it quite clear.) by 2.00 it already sounds like a "double solo", the two horns improvising over a fairly sparse but tense backing, sustained notes gradually rising in pitch from (some of) the ensemble creating a sense of growing urgency, which is then communicated back to the soloists as their exchanging of paired notes (around 3.00) leads to faster and faster and playing from both. this continues for another minute, both horns playing very briskly for the most part, though only the percussion attempts to match them for pace: otherwise the sustained notes remain in place, the pitches still rising steadily, jacking up the tension still further; this cannot continue indefinitely, and b's first tiny timbral distortion at 4.05 signals a miniature climax reached. by 4.20, all the backing drops away and with no actual pause, the leader is left on his own.

as is so often the case, the solo which follows fully showcases the leader's virtuosity, displaying one by one almost his entire box of tricks: ultra-fast trills, fierce tonal distortions, rapid runs both fluid and staccato, subtle yet emotive pitch bends... all so familiar by now, yet each time it's as if i'm hearing them all for the first time: his playing still has the capacity to astonish me after all these hours of listening. a lovely tremolo brings this performance-within-a-performance to a close as the ensemble returns at 6.00. (amazing how precise some of these timings really are..! given that they surely weren't playing to a clock.) again, it's b. and lewis who dominate proceedings, the backing initially picking up more or less where it left off; and although this does change soon enough, other players elbowing their way briefly into the foreground, by 7.00 it's back to business as usual, with the two principals reciting a set of written lines and the group merely supporting them. (the lines themselves are archetypal braxton, at times almost mimicking the "battlement" configurations of the repetition structures, comps. 6f/40(o); here as there, we are unquestionably far beyond "jazz" - whatever that is.) suddenly, the trombone is the only voice we hear (7.18) and lewis embarks on his own demonstration of virtuosity.

- and this too has the capacity to astonish, again despite previous listening experience... lewis begins with considerable restraint, placing his opening entries sparingly and with great care, taking full advantage of the close recording mics to toy expertly with dynamics; this in addition to all the other manifold tools at his disposal... some very soft, almost intimate attacks are mingled with startlingly powerful ones: he has no trouble generating the echo which is generally absent from this recording! knowing that he's in the homeland of mangelsdorff may give him something extra to prove (*4); in any case, his solo is filled with such extraordinary verve, imagination and technical skill that any brass players in the audience would surely either feel inspired to get playing as soon as they got home, or want to bury their instruments under a dungheap and have done with it. between 8.35 and about 9.00, lewis unleashes cleanly-articulated lines of such ridiculous speed (*5) that the ensemble might be grateful for the fact that they're laying out at the time: otherwise a case of the "charlie parkers" might ensue, everyone losing the plot in amazement at what the soloist is doing.

at 9.45, the group is back in (*6), and this initiates what is possibly the densest section of the piece. at first, we are presented with swaying, uneasy sounds from different instruments in turn (during the session i heard these as creating a "seascape" although repeated listenings have cancelled that somewhat). vague tensions abound; by 10.30 some very forceful attacks by lewis lead to great clashes of cymbals and more noise all round. even when this diminishes, shrill piccolos and scratchy strings keep the atmosphere anything but calm; the volume level drops, but by 12.10 it's building to another crescendo and in due course we're in mid-cacophony again. at 12.40, a biting, spitting attack from the leader indicates a change of tack, and after a brief pause, the next section of the piece commences, this characterised by yearning, balladic playing from both b. (now on alto) and lewis. first it's the leader again, soaring over some hypnotic backing (more sustained notes, without the rising effect this time) with a singing, heart-rending sax solo filled with gorgeous note-bends; one tiny highlight for me occurs between 14.45 and 14.47 as first one note is repeated then a second, each hammered out in a staccato double triplet at great speed (this must surely be extremely difficult, but it's made to sound easy); and at 14.53 lewis dovetails with him - shutting out the applause which the audience can no longer suppress - picking up the thread and continuing in a similar vein, using his own most mellifluous tone to evocative effect. there is another smattering of applause as this section comes to a close...

... and just before 16.30, the seamonster makes its first appearance, sawing its way in beneath the foundations, alternately rumbling and squeaking as is its wont, joined now only by the trombone and by the harp, whose occasional skeletal entries (*7) provide a suitably eerie backdrop to the eldritch dialogue which takes us almost up to the end of the piece - an exchange between the two stars which is so hard to describe in words that even i am reluctant to attempt it (*8), but which is truly fascinating to hear. every so often, they move seamlessly from improvised playing to written lines, the harp joining in; around 18.30ish, they swap "unfinished" attacks, which creates immediate movement in the form of a very intense burst at 18.45; another snippet of written theme, and a minute or so of very fast playing from b's contrabass clarinet and lewis' muted 'bone - playing which occasions another round of applause; and then from 20.00, the pace slows right down, plenty of space around magical, bent attacks from all three players (the harp stays with them and, as mentioned above, is ultimately the last voice heard in the piece). another brief return to the written material, more otherworldly improv - the harp doing its best to match the two masters for craziness but inevitably failing - and we're into the last straight, b. and lewis trading puffs and growls around 22.00 before signing off with one last visit to the score, the harp left to close proceedings out alone, ensuring a low-key and haunting end. warm applause from the rapt audience, and danke schoen from our maestro.


- and that is finally it for the montreux/berlin concerts, which just leaves the grading at last... of course, i've known for ages that this was going to be a CCCC recommendation. it's a beautifully balanced double album, the two versions of the quartet nicely equipoised, the two repetition structures and two uptempo jazz numbers mirroring each other; two of the lesser-known 40 series pieces are included, one of which does not appear anywhere else in the official discography (*9); and above all - and i'm consciously comparing with dortmund here - the orchestral piece means that no-one will come away from this album thinking "jazz"... free or otherwise. hence, the album as a whole paints quite a full picture of where b. was at back then, and where he would be going in the future; hence, i would now be nudging new listeners towards this, rather than that other german excursion, good as it (generally) is.

comp.63 itself is intriguing and bears repeated investigations - even if it is essentially a vehicle for extended workouts by the due virtuosi. the complex framework within which these solo flights are presented is knotty, dissonant, beautiful and compelling, and it draws focused and committed performances from everyone... though the astounding improvisations will inevitably be what most lucky witnesses carried home with them.

* see comments


centrifuge said...

1. no, it's not actually listed as a creative orchestra, and thinking about it, it probably isn't one (as i understand the term): rather than comprising (wholly or otherwise) hand-picked soloists, it's a pre-existing group of dot-readers used for one particular job... still, it's a suitably braxtonesque term, i've used it before in this context; and what else would we call it? too small for an orchestra, and "big band" just doesn't cover it... in any case, they may not be improvising players but they do throw themselves into the piece with enthusiasm.

2. following the link will of course take you to the braxtothon entry for *creative orchestra music 1976*... and hacking through all that verbiage would eventually lead you to the last piece on the album, which is the aforesaid comp. 59. reading this would still leave you confused if you didn't also read the comments attached to the post - ! my listening was very much coloured on this occasion by the entry for the album on restructures, as it was at the time: jason g. only realised after reading my write-up that he'd mistakenly failed to list mitchell as playing on this number. i certainly wasn't about to credit any of the other reedmen on the date with sufficient inventiveness/mastery of extended technique to play that alto solo, and since i didn't think mitchell was present, i had to believe it was the leader. [why have i not corrected this in the article? because that's what i wrote; the correction is in the comments; and i'm not ashamed to leave my mistakes on full view.]

3. that is to say, i am still sticking to the idea of not using the composition notes in any great depth until *after* the end of phase four (originally this was in the interests of wrapping phase 4 up relatively quickly... which of course i failed to do... but even so, i have to draw a line somewhere or i'll never get there..!). of course i have consulted b's notes on numerous occasions over the last year or so, but have not yet attempted to wrestle with them very seriously. there are several reasons for this, and i'm not going to go into them now... possibly i will, at the beginning of phase five.

4. this is not the first time i've made this point, but it's still worth saying. lewis is still enjoying his first full year on the scene, remember, and although this is no longer his first trip to europe, he has to assume that at least some of the audience will not have heard him before; here in germany especially, mangelsdorff was doubtless regarded as the gold standard for "jazz" trombone. not any more..!

5. this was probably not unique to him, even then. paul rutherford talked in interviews about how he had taught himself to play with incredible speed by flicking the slide; whether most european listeners, or even british ones, would have been familiar with rutherford back then is another matter. (a few years ago i saw the experimental metal group ephel duath, who were using a trombonist at the time; i talked to the guy in question after the set, and he mentioned his admiration for lewis, mangelsdorff of course, and others ranging from robin eubanks to frank rosolino... he had never heard of rutherford, who later died - let's not forget - in almost complete obscurity.)

centrifuge said...

6. right around the time this happens, there is what sounds like an edit. (actually, not for the first time... read on.) surely not..? well, one certainly wouldn't think so; this was recorded live, right? as in the montreux/berlin *concerts*... now,while we're at it, there is actually an earlier instance of this in the same piece: at 7.18 when lewis begins his solo. this earlier one consists of a tiny silence, with what immediately follows just sounding somehow different; the 9.46 instance comes just after the ensemble re-enters, when there is a very sudden change of (group) attack which doesn't quite seem natural. [this later one got picked up right away in the original braxtothon session, the earlier one eluded me until i relistened, hence the footnote being placed here and not there, if that makes sense.] if this were a zappa recording (as so often with these larger-ensemble pieces, i was reminded of fz while listening for the first time - as always, i have to put this down to a matter of shared influences, and in any event it probably says a lot about my own drastic lack of experience in the field of modern orchestral music), i would feel sure that it WAS an edit. in b's case... it seems unlikely, but this was being recorded for official release as part of b's prestigious/ultimately doomed arista contract, and who knows, maybe there was a problem with that particular section which meant that lewis' solo had to be re-recorded and spliced in. i'm mentioning it, but i'm not gonna worry about it too much ;-)

7. even after repeated playings i can't quite make up my mind whether a guitar is being heard as well, or whether the harp is simply being strummed like a guitar at these points, two or three strings partly stopped to mimic guitar chords. doubtless i haven't heard enough harp playing to be able to say for sure what the instrument can do..! the composition notes specify harp for the piece, but it really does sound at times like a soft-stringed acoustic guitar. or something. (perhaps someone out there knows the answer to this..?)

8. i don't mean that i necessarily have greater descriptive skill than other music writers, merely that i seem to be compelled to write about musical events that others would probably let speak for themselves. (or, as nick cave had it, "onward and onward and onward i go/where nobody else could be bothered to go...")

9. comp. 40k only appears here; 40n is not a common piece either, but the '85 quartet played it, and it concludes the first set of the coventry concert.