november, 1976... and what began in london almost six years earlier has finally come to an end. those feb 1971 recording sessions probably didn't witness the actual conception of the anthony braxton quartet (although maybe they did..?), but as far as the discography is concerned, that's ground zero (*1). of course, it would be easy to forget a couple of significant points as well: the working quartet didn't always feature dave holland and barry altschul, and even when it did, sometimes they weren't both available. just to restate what any half-serious braxtophile "should" know by now: new york, fall 1974 is only partly a quartet album, and jerome cooper played drums on it anyway. (worth repeating that, since i know the tendency - out there in "jazz discussion land" - is to consider that album as a highpoint for the classic 70s quartet.) getting back to the first significant point, b's working band during 1973, unfortunately unrecorded and therefore unknown to most people, featured kenny wheeler with the unfamiliar - but superb - rhythm section of j-f jenny-clark and charles "bobo" shaw. b. mentions to graham lock (in forces in motion) how good this band was and regrets that he never got the chance to take it into the studio and capture it for posterity; the only recording i have of them is from châteauvallon in august 1973 and as far as i know it's (alas) long gone from the blogosphere. the point is, holland and altschul were not continuously involved with this project throughout those years; but for the most part, they were, and in some (esp. older) listeners' minds their names are perpetually linked with braxton's during this time. in any case they gave loyal service during a crucial period in b's development, and what i want to do here is look back over their tenure in the band; specifically, i've long promised to give a fuller account of my frequently-stated opinion that they stayed just a little bit too long. presumably, there have been plenty of people out there who don't like this idea at all, and it's worth giving a proper explanation. (even more specifically, this is the time to examine and unpack what some may think by now is a personal grudge against dave holland... that really isn't the case, but... well, read on.)
let's just remind ourselves of how we got here. the young dave holland's career was kick-started by miles davis, who head-hunted him after seeing him at ronnie scott's and whisked him off to new york - where he met, among many others, chick corea. the two of them would participate in several large ensembles (most notably for the epochal bitches brew); and they stuck around after others had gone their own way, working closely together in miles' "lost" quintet (with wayne shorter and jack dejohnette - "lost" because miles never got them into the studio, though there are now so many live recordings of this band in circulation that it would be more appropriate to call them the "found" quintet..!). corea then formed his own trio, with holland and barry altschul; when b. got involved, the resulting quartet became known as circle, a group still fetishised in some quarters (by people who in some cases seem to regard the group's inevitable dissolution as the beginning of the end for b.). at some point around this time, all four members of the band were inducted into scientology, and corea stayed with it; the other three lasted about a year before deciding to leave. corea goes on from here to make lots of money (a basic requirement for scientologists, since ascension through the ranks necessitates large investment) by playing dodgy fusion (*2) for most of the next decade... the others, no doubt bonded further by their shared doubts about scientology, proceed to take the path of creativity over commercialism, condemning themselves to relative poverty in the process.
- but even before circle was disbanded, our man was already hard at work constructing his own main working group for the next decade (and beyond). circle was - like air - a democratic co-operative group, with no leader (*3). though it shared personnel with the other group, the anthony braxton quartet was very much b's baby and firmly under his leadership. wheeler, introduced to free music by the spontaneous music ensemble (where he met holland), comes in to help voice those lovely ballad structures which are taking shape... of course, the complete 1971 album is not credited to the quartet, since only three of the tracks are performed by it; there are also two duets with corea, at least one of which made its way into circle's repertoire (*4), as did the original repetition structure, now known as comp. 6f but first listed on record(s) as "73 kelvin" or similar. all of these pieces (including the three quartet numbers waxed in london) are significant, since they were retrospectively included in the 6 series, the first book of pieces for creative ensemble. this first book (of four) also includes the two braxton compositions from his first album as a leader, 3 compositions of new jazz, as well as pieces cut for the french byg label and issued on b's two albums for them. one key aspect of b's work at this time was to establish separate "strands" for his composing; solo pieces went together, of course (*5), and there were to be many other types of composition also, which would later be numbered individually when b. and francesco martinelli drew up the system which is in use today. but the creative ensemble pieces are special in their own way, since they were to make up the bulk of the repertoire for the main working group over the next couple of decades (*6).
that group, having begun while circle was still a going concern, took a while to bear any more fruit. over the next few years, my picture of the band's evolution is very far from complete; i don't (yet!) have many live recordings from 1971-3. but the discography, at least, does not contain many quartet recordings during this period, and those which were released do not always feature the "classic" line-up. february 1972 sees michael smith, peter warren and oliver johnson in the group, cutting two standards and a pair of book two (23 series) pieces for what was released mistakenly as dona lee (just a careless typo; this is not the "correct" name of the album as some insist!). may of the same year sees holland back on board, and altschul too, for the new york town hall concert; but even then, only holland played on all the pieces. january 1973 finds b. in tokyo, working with three top-flight japanese players on four book two compositions (*7). as previously stated, the (american) working group during that year did not include holland and altschul, though kenny wheeler was back in. only in 1974 does the "classic" line-up begin to assert itself as such. from here until 1976, holland and altschul are the first-call rhythm section, and only the brass chair changes - wheeler to lewis. during this three-year period, of course, several much-loved albums were recorded (although some of those only saw release a while later), and this above all is why the line-up of braxton, wheeler/lewis, holland and altschul is so enshrined in the "jazz memory" (*8).
in any case, that brings me up to date with braxtothon time: at the tail end of 1976, after a very full year of activity for the composer - and for free jazz and creative music generally - holland and altschul finally leave the band, and a major chapter has closed. i can now try and get to grips with exactly what was lacking in these two players, for me... and for starters, it's time to look at the whole "dave holland question".
as i've tried to make clear before, i really don't have a grudge against dave holland, nor am i on a mission to undermine his reputation - the aim of this blog is to listen closely and report back on my findings; that's it. however, my changing opinions on holland as a bandleader and composer in particular seem in some way emblematic of the drastic change in my hearing and taste which took place in the last few months of 2006. (my opinion of holland as a player has changed less, but anyone who has read the braxtothon entries at all over the last couple of years will know that i no longer consider him to have been ideally suited to b's music... this is all about to be explained.)
after a brief flirtation with jazz in my university days, i didn't seriously attempt to get into it until i was approaching thirty (which seemed like a good age for it!). having initially been drawn to dolphy, coleman, coltrane, ayler etc, i nevertheless tried to read up on the history of the music and learn as much as i could about (what i perceived to be) the key figures. at this time i had no friends who were particularly interested in jazz and had to collect as best i could on a limited budget, making use of the libraries wherever possible. (i managed to borrow a fair number of recordings since i was living in north london at the time; since i've been based in swansea the opportunities for such things are rather less, but then i've found other ways to do my research..!) i established fairly quickly that "premodern" jazz just didn't work for me, and concentrated on the modern players. while pursuing my original interest in free/avant-garde jazz, albeit rather slowly, i tried also to familiarise myself with parker, monk, mingus, miles davis, and with the blue note stable (these were always freely available, either as library borrowings or as cheap purchases). at this point i found myself listening mainly to recordings from the 50s and 60s, with only fairly occasional forays into more recent developments. names like braxton, mitchell, cecil taylor went down on a list somewhere to be explored further at a later date; i knew back then that these were beyond my understanding at that time, though i felt sure they would be of great interest later.
during this period (roughly 2000-05) i became familiar with lots of facts and figures, knew the basic details of some key discographies pretty well... and found that my understanding of the music remained more or less static. reviews by professional critics often left me scratching my head, wondering how they could hear the music with such clarity and hoping that i might one day come close to doing the same.
sometime around 2004-5, i began listening to the bbc radio programme jazz on 3 on a weekly basis, eagerly drinking in more contemporary sounds and trying to bring my knowledge of the scene up to date. the broadcasts would frequently include tracks from current cd issues, and my "to buy one day" lists got bigger and bigger... but, to my frustration, my understanding of the music still didn't increase much. part of the problem, i knew, was that i was usually doing other things while the music was playing, but... this didn't seem to be a complete explanation for it. i often couldn't really tell whether i liked something or not; if it didn't speak to me, i usually concluded that the fault was in me (*9) and that i just needed repeated exposure, better concentration, etc. my collection of cds grew steadily, as did my knowledge of names and facts, without any great shift in my hearing taking place. meanwhile, having time on my hands, i had become active on the bbc's jazz messageboard; i was aware that a hardcore contingent of posters were loudly opposed to jazz on 3 and to its presenter, jez nelson, in particular; i always thought they were being rather unfair (and indeed ungrateful) and sometimes told them so.
dave holland was one of my "certainties" at this time, someone whose albums i collected whenever the opportunity came up. conference of the birds, widely regarded as a timeless classic (*10), had been on one of my early "must-buy" lists; i got it as soon as i could, and was happy to agree with the general consensus (though i always found the themes a bit twee and dated). i also picked up the later albums as i came across them, and although some of the dhq offerings struck me as rather dull and samey, i put this impression to the back of my mind (assuming as always that i just needed to hear them more). holland's contemporary projects, both the quintet and big band, were very much still of interest to me at this time.
heading into the autumn and winter of 2006, i began to discover the emerging music blogging scene, just in time to get in on the action at church number nine (*11). now i had found my music, as i quickly realised. night after night found me in front of the computer, feverishly downloading rare albums and live sets, listening to them straight away (this "honeymoon period" was all too brief - soon enough i found myself overwhelmed), discussing my impressions excitedly with other listeners. i learned that i had been badly mistaken in one of my assumptions: that this was an ideal time to get into the music, since "everything" had been (re)issued on cd and was in print. nope! as it turned out, lots of crucial recordings had been lost to time, buried by general indifference. but the other important lesson was absorbed gradually, so that it took me a while to notice: my hearing changed. constant exposure to the sounds i'd been looking for all along meant that after a while, i heard everything differently. ironically, daily exposure to free jazz had achieved what countless hours playing hard bop cds couldn't: even mainstream recordings now appeared much more transparent to me. eventually, i found myself understanding precisely what the "jez nelson naysayers" meant - many of the broadcasts now sounded superficial and/or derivative to my ears, and the presenter struck me as shallow and uninformed. very often i could now assess within a few seconds whether or not a given piece of music was what i was looking for. i was soon able to go back through my "wants" lists and cut them in half...
... but this took a little while. there was an overlap period, during which i hadn't yet had the opportunity to update a lot of my opinions (and i'm tempted to put that word in inverted commas). approaching the end of 2006, i was still looking forward to jazz on 3's scheduled live performance by dhq, and indeed i'd asked a relative to buy me the latest album by the group, critical mass (i would later find this a staggeringly inappropriate name for an album in which nothing much happens, or nothing new at any rate..!). it was only when the cd arrived, and i first played it, that the penny really dropped. for a start, the opening track just sounded far too familiar: essentially, i now realised, holland had been turning out versions of the same piece for more than two decades now. this caused an uneasy feeling in me, which the rest of the album only increased: over the course of the next hour (i don't think i made it all the way through on this occasion), i developed an unshakeable impression of tired, formulaic, lifeless, sterile music. the scales had fallen from my ears, and nothing ever sounded quite the same to me again.
so that's how it goes with me and dave holland the composer-bandleader. i'm not suggesting that his music was always tired and sterile; and as regards his later output, it's not actually all that heretical of me to label it formulaic: even the two jeffs, not necessarily known for their heterodox opinions on active musicians, have been happy to go on record saying it, and rather more scathingly than i just did (*12). i can't remember now when exactly i first came across the notorious misha mengelberg blindfold test, in which the pianist (who is unable to identify the artist on a lateish holland excursion) declares the music he's hearing to be "anti-fun" and - on being told who it is - says with typical dutch bluntness that holland should never be allowed to lead an ensemble (*13). but in any case, the "updated" opinion i carried forward into 2007, and on into the braxtothon some months later, was (still) that dave holland the sideman possessed impeccable credentials. so when did my thinking start to change, and why?
as intimated in one of the notes above, the first time i can remember having reason to doubt holland's abilities as a player - at least in this context - was very near the end of braxtothon phase two, at the tail end of october 2007; it came as quite a shock. to be totally fair and accurate, it wasn't actually specific to holland, on that first occasion: listening to the quartet play comp. 23b at moers in 1974, within a few minutes i became aware of the bass and drums half asleep on the job, just cruising. i could hardly believe the conclusion i'd just reached - my original notes for the session find me wondering whether i was now just setting my standards ridiculously high..? was i just spoilt by insane musicianship and impossible expectations? but of course i had only just recently heard the same number played by the '73 band and was acutely aware of a difference in intensity (this one's probably thought of as a "fast" tune because it begins with fast horn lines, but it's a mid-tempo number and - i would rediscover on several occasions - that's precisely when this r-section is most likely to doze off for a spell)... is it too much, to ask of creative musicians that they play always and only from the centre - ? but no, it isn't too much; indeed it's a basic unspoken requirement, common to all the new approaches to serious music which grew up in free jazz soil.
'cos the point is that this was the first of numerous such "doldrums" which i began to pick up in the quartet's intensity levels from now on - and even then, for a while i came to associate these with wheeler, so rarely sure of what he wants to say when he's flung right out into free space, precisely where true free-spirited musicians instantly thrive; so that for a while i was partially blinded to the truth each time i hit on something true... but in any case, even in that first rather deflating session, i was quickly enough reminded of what holland's and altschul's strengths are: the moers set proceeds with the magickal, magisterial conception that is comp. 23e, far from the finished article at this stage (and not at all properly understood by me in that entry), yet still fizzing with massive energies, held under tight control by the r-section at the top of its game. quickly enough i was prepared to let the earlier lapse go as a one-off...
... because like everyone else i'd put a lot of personal faith in the idea of this rhythm section, had got so used to lapping up anything they got involved with during this period... i can remember first reading about "braxton's great quartet" of the 80s and thinking that surely no quartet could be better or greater than the line-up with lewis, holland, altschul... well, we all know i no longer think that, but i wasn't there yet. still, it took little or no time for the doubts to begin creeping back, and regularly from now on: and at first i laid this at the door of mr kenny wheeler. so often a boiling rhythm would simmer down to flatline levels when the trumpet came out, and this seemed to become more and more frequent as 1974 became 1975 - it may have been a vicious circle, because lack of intensity in the backing then left wheeler without much heat to build a fire with; but no-one ever hung back like that when lewis took a solo. ok, so during this next clutch of sessions i saw wheeler edging towards the door in my hindsight-influenced eye, knowing that gnu high was on the cards (and through it and out the other side, a modest but very well-regarded career as a composer of wistful ballad tunes), knowing that lewis took over soon enough... being so recent a convert to this sort of music, i was rather ignorant of the (smallish) extent to which wheeler did remain involved with free music after 1975; but then the weak spot in the group seemed so obviously to be him at this point that i got ahead of myself a bit. (i took some of it back rather when the "special quintet" gig from '76 turned up... reading that line-up gave me a bit of a shock i can tell you..!) yes, there were also times when holland's solos would put me half to sleep, or when he would seem to think slowest or react last in a group free-for-all... i still felt (assumed, really) that with wheeler gone, all this would change.
after all, 1975 saw what i still consider to the be the apotheosis of this particular band: not the album as such but the piece which occasioned the use of that picture, comp. 23e in all its glory, fully worked-up on the road and ready to crack open the earth, raise ayler's spirit from the grave. i said before that holland's studio work on this incredible piece may well represent his finest moment with braxton; who knows, it may well be the very best moment he's had on record, it would be no shame. the sonic alchemy being worked in that space laboratory is entirely dependent on holland's rock-steady arco technique (*14) and his magnificent control of the dynamics. and don't let's forget the non-schizoid twin, comp. 40n, if anything an even stiffer test of arco technique since it requires continuous stability and only fractional dynamic variance; but really, that powerhouse performance of 23e is (i realise now) the top of the curve as far as the loyal bassist was concerned. it actually was all downhill from there... not that the journey down wasn't still pretty enjoyable.
the rest has been harped on about in so many of my posts over the last two years that it's worth only a very brief recap, to wit: because the first crop of lewis sessions don't feature the quartet, i was fully (delightedly) aware of what those two could do together - and it was another system shock to find (as i could really have guessed by now) that holland and altschul just can't quite cut it in this company. it's really about holland, though: he's just not a thinker on that level and this has a terribly grounding effect on any far-flung flights of fancy. altschul... to an extent these two are joined at the hip, and so one can drag down the other at times (or inspire him at others), but in theory the band could lose holland, keep altschul and still move forward. a bit. basically... it's at an end now.
familiarity breeds contempt? i've said more than once that the "comfy old shoe" sensation of settling into a holland-altschul groove is one of the things i found hardest to overlook in the last few sessions... am i just now far too demanding, unfair? would a new listener come to any of these recordings and think simply, "what a completely great band"? some of them might... i did, once... but then i hadn't heard the duet sessions at that point in my life. anyway, be serious: i've heard a great many more solos by anthony braxton than i have by dave holland, and... (no need to finish that sentence)
- and the thing is, pick up the thread with holland after the end of '76, it's not as if he settles at once into something easy and undemanding, even if that's arguably what he settled for later on; no, he goes right back into playing (among other things) white-hot free jazz with sam rivers (and, usually, the other half of that pelvis, b. altschul, esq.). as late as 1980, at least, holland was still playing with rivers (*15) and sounded great. rivers' music at this time (at least for trio or quartet) played right up to holland's estimable strengths - let's just remind ourselves of what they are, of what miles davis saw just before he went "yeeeaaahhhh... that cat's a motherfucker" (*16): tireless forward momentum; extraordinary technical facility, built on hard graft and natural self-confidence; lovely sound (this alone might have got him the davis gig)... from the point of view of (fully) free jazz, holland has been one of those who picked up the thread from charlie haden and buell neidlinger, both in on the ground floor when the bass first cast off the shackles of "the changes" - combine this with his stamina, you can play at full throttle for a whole set and dave'll never flag, nor ever paint the soloists into a corner. ideal for the sam rivers school of modern creative music, where holland isn't called upon to think on his feet as such, just play well within himself (*17). paradoxically (as some greater minds would see it), this frees holland up to play his very best. again, it startled me when i heard the 1975 bremen recording: this was the latest full set of holland that i've enjoyed unequivocally with this band, on a set full of book two "standards" that consistently fails to inspire the leader by this stage. this is the demarcation line that separates the true visionaries: the fresh and new inspires them, pushes them beyond their current limits. our bassist falls into holding patterns whenever confronted by these same qualities.
how early could they have known? the august 1975 jazz hot carries a laurent goddet interview in which b. says (*18) "dave holland is indeed one of my closest friends and i often feel the need to play with him." these two (and these three, including altschul) had shared a lot, mostly in hard times. the holland family even put braxton up at one point, i believe (somewhat earlier). they both had every reason to put off the inevitable, to screen off from their own conscious minds the signals which would foreshadow it. but eventually, after joyous weeks scrying the cosmos with the 'bone wonder, b. the magus would have to get that sinking feeling: it can't go on like this, the music is being dragged backwards, or at best stretched in two directions at once. new blood will be needed, a complete rethink from the ground up. in the meantime, two paths diverge and head off into separate futures, it is to be hoped with no hard feelings on either side. much important work has been undertaken with these loyal assistants, and some great moments have been bequeathed to the library of free jazz.
lewis, of course, will return to b's music on several occasions... and continues to collaborate with him in other contexts too.
* see comments
- FINIS -
end of braxtothon volume one (as i've just decided!)
- volume two will commence with phase five, coming next month... the ball is rolling again!