Tuesday, November 30, 2010

progress report/ comp. 40q

"progress"... not much at the moment, unfortunately. i was working on the john tchicai gig review; but that one didn't want to be written yet. so i gave up for the time being and concentrated on getting braxtothon phase five kicked off... and apparently that one just didn't feel ready to greet the world yet either. it's all quite frustrating: for once i have actually had a bit of time to play with, but the writing just didn't come. sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't... not that i would want to be, but i couldn't be a professional critic.

ok, so... i am still hoping to get both of those posts up within the next few weeks (fingers crossed). in the meantime - i listened again recently to the album currently under consideration and found myself thinking again about comp. 40q, the crazy march tune which opens the second side of that record... as i've mentioned before (last para of this post), james carter covered the piece a couple of decades later with his regular band of the time, plus guest hamiet bluiett. if anyone is curious to hear what that sounded like, check it out. as regards other recordings by braxton, however... well, a live version of the piece turned up recently, played in concert by the same two masters that originally waxed it; but, this being a third songbook number, in theory there is no reason why it should not have been played by the quartet at some point. if anyone knows of any live concert recordings including this extraordinary piece, do please let me know! for the time being... that's all i'm saying...

Friday, November 19, 2010

braxtothon phase five: prologue

1976... is not yet quite over. yes, the old rhythm section has gone, and with its passing a major chapter of the quartet's history has closed. but that action-packed year (the thought of which so daunted me back in may 2008... dear oh dear, was it really that long ago?!) is still where i find myself, just about: there is one more station stop to deal with before moving into 1977.

rather neatly, the transition into the new year is marked with an  "overlap" of sorts. over a month after the old quartet gave its last concert, our man is in a toronto studio with his old friend/aacm colleague/supposed rival roscoe mitchell, cutting an album of duets under the latter's name; that is actually the last discog entry for 1976, and the first for 1977 sees the pair back in the studio, this time in their home town of chicago, laying down one more duet as part of the sessions for mitchell's famous nonaah. not surprisingly, i worked both of these recordings into one session, the first for this new phase of the continuing journey.

- and after that? however it worked out at the time, for us here and now dealing with the official discography the first few dates following the dissolution of the "first classic quartet" (as one might call it, bearing in mind that there were - at least - two versions of that group anyway) all feature b. as sideman, not leader. well... sideman or collaborator: those duets are not really sideman dates (not at all, in fact), even if they do appear under mitchell's name; and the company week performances are not that sort of deal either. actually, only woody shaw's the iron men has b. playing a genuine sideman's role around this time. but the fact remains that this clutch of recordings does not include any of b's compositions, nor are any of them under his leadership. it is known (confirmed in the composition notes) that there was a regular working group during 1977, but the only official recording from this period which fits the bill is this one - and i've always had trouble believing that abrams would have been a regular sideman in anyone's band by this time... then again, we know that he did play at least one other gig with this group, though that one is apparently something of a one-off (two standards, no originals? and bluiett clearly there as a guest - chances are the bootleg does not contain the entire performance; maybe the band was joined by the guest just for the two standards, and only these have made it into circulation..?). in any event, abrams obviously was in europe at the time, and played at least two concerts as part of b's group; even if he was not a regular member, it's entirely feasible that the rest of the line-up - lewis, helias, shaw - comprises the working unit at this time. needless to say, i have not yet been able to confirm any of this.

i'm getting slightly ahead of myself anyway... for the time being, i have not made up my mind which of the above-mentioned recordings will be covered in phase five. not completely, that is: the company week recordings will definitely be dealt with (at least the ones featuring b - i have no intention of covering all three albums in their entirety), and of course the basel quintet set is also a certainty, as if that needed to be said. the woody shaw album... i'm unlikely to include that one, i think. (though as a matter of fact, i did start writing something about it ages ago now, and one of these days i will probably finish it..! chances are it will end up as a detour, rather than an actual station stop... that seems rather more appropriate.) as for the "covers" sextet boot, i'm not about to make a decision on that one until nearer the time... but two standards? maybe not, eh... again, perhaps it'll end up getting discussed in some other format. or perhaps, by the time i get there, i shall have changed my mind...

first up, then, will be the mitchell duet sessions, and we'll take it from there. it's a strange accident that the discog has a lack of "canon" recordings at this time, but there are other gaps in the chronology, this is hardly the first. in any case, 1977 has its share of important recordings: as well as the basel set (only released in 2000), there is always this to look forward to, continuing the arista offerings. as we're going to see, b's career as a leader has by no means been derailed by the loss of his two longtime companions.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

comp. 23j (re-)revisited

so... before saying anything about the trio version of this piece recently unearthed from the archives of bobby naughton, i read through the composition notes (which in this case are also available online at restructures). it's a piece i'm reasonably familiar with, having analysed two live versions of it and having recently heard another one - and indeed one in the studio, not that i mentioned that one on the blog yet... but apparently there was at least one basic mistake in my memory's version of the theme: in the footnotes to that dortmund write-up, i described the theme's initial phrase as comprising ten notes, when the composition notes say nine, and when i went to that duet version to check, no-one will be surprised to learn that it was the composer who had it correctly..! with only the two instruments playing, it's perfectly clear; probably it is in the quartets as well (i'm not about to check right now), and just my ear memory which is at fault... it's nowhere near as reliable as i would like.

- and with that rather trivial confession (*1) out of the way, let's just have another look at those composition notes... yes, i also find them quite hard to understand at times, just like most readers: our man uses language in his own special way and it's not always evident to the rest of us what precisely he has in mind; he's entitled to do that, he's a genius... anyway... a few salient points to bear in mind when assessing any given version of it (and before i go into those, even - dedicated to t.s. eliot! curious... not the most obvious dedicatee for a "medium fast (to fast) tempo structure designed for extended improvisation... in the post-be-bop tradition"; i wonder which eliot work/s the maestro had in mind?): first, the piece is designed to highlight individual solo styles (one might therefore compare it with "three bags full" by herbie hancock, which was at least intended to point out the different styles of the three soloists on that recording); second, it "was constructed without any applied harmonic basis or preconceived rhythmic structure"; third, a given performance "emphasizes the nature of its material repositioning more than the actual notes used to create that positioning". this last point is made again earlier in the notes, phrased in a different (but similarly abstruse) way, and i take it to mean that the piece was intended to encourage solo improvisations which build on the patterns and accent displacements of the written material, rather than the harmonic structure of the theme. (in any case it's pretty much axiomatic that b's music, even the relatively simple examples of it, doesn't tend to foster straightforward "playing the changes" soloing... nor are those kinds of players likely to be attracted to his work in the first place..!)

as a "post-be-bop" piece, 23j is rather more advanced than, say, comp. 23b (which is doubtless extremely tough to play, but is not especially unorthodox in its tonalities) - but not as skewed as comp. 69g which would come along a little later. played live by b's quartets, it has a pretty irresistible propulsive drive; but let's not forget that there was no preconceived rhythmic structure and it's up to the interpreter to set the pace and the rhythm. mr naughton chooses to slow the tempo down a bit, introduce a few actual (unison) pauses into the written line, and restore an overtly "swung" rhythm to what had sometimes in concert become a bit of a headlong dash. by utilising clearly using this particular rhythmic template (which i believe is basically triplets, with only the first and third of each group voiced, the second being a rest - but i have no formal training remember, so don't just take my word for it!), naughton links the piece to other well-known modern compositions as "skippy" (monk *2) and "gazzelloni" (dolphy) - dolphy especially was very fond of this "skipping" rhythm and frequently fell into it in his solos. besides - fairly or otherwise, any vibraphonist playing in this sort of context post-1964 is almost inevitably going to draw mental comparisons with bobby hutcherson on out to lunch; and that isn't such a terrible thing, bearing in mind what a great album that was for the instrument... the trio does seem to have it at least somewhat in mind during this reading, drummer randy kaye copping a few tricks from tony williams along the way (around 4.30 for instance... see if that passage doesn't remind you of lunch..!).

once the theme is completed, naughton embarks on a solo which does indeed seem to hinge on the material's linear exposition rather than anything else; a key element is the modulation of fairly short, repeated phrases, exploring what happens to these when subtle changes or displacements are made. you can pretty much forget what i said in my earlier post - about how naughton "seems to be concerned with exploring the ways in which b's tonalities open up complex dissonances when voiced by the vibes": let's face it, that's probably true of any number of themes (it is possible to make the vibes sound straightforwardly pretty when they're given something very, very simple to play; anything more elaborate and they at once open up a very complex tonal palette, it's just the nature of the beast)... quite often, naughton "speeds up" by playing complete triplets, and the drums never fail to respond to this gear-shift (fonda sticks for the most part to the walking bass specified in the rubric, though he does pick up from the leader at times too). use is also made of the half-step tonal modulations in the written theme, mirrored at times in naughton's improvised lines. at 3.14, a ringing attack introduces a short passage in which naughton pulls away from the stated pulse, playing completely outside the rhythm section for about fifteen seconds, most obviously between 3.23 and 3.28 when he delivers two different variants of an ascending chromatic run; by 3.30 the three players are back in step, fonda the next to break away briefly around 3.45. again, from 4.08 to about 4.27 naughton escapes completely from the phrase-structures of the written line and this time the freedom is co-opted by kaye, collapsing the rhythm completely and leaving it to fonda to maintain it.

in kaye's solo which follows, fonda first drops the pulse and then lays out altogether, as the drums play without any reference to the theme at all, eventually lapsing into space just before the restatement is picked up. the ending is as neatly abrupt as any of the braxton versions; it apparently comes as a surprise to the audience, who are silent for a few beats before an appreciative "yeah!" kicks off the clapping. (not many in the crowd, by the sound of it - this of course is the curse of the modern-day creative musician, the big audiences mainly reserved for those who put far less work into their music...)


i tend to have mixed feelings about "covers" of b's compositions: on the one hand, i seldom enjoy them as much as i do his own renditions, but on the other i am always interested to hear what other musicians do with them, how they rise to the various challenges they present. it's always good to see anyone taking them on, pretty much; for all his is now a trendy name to drop in certain circles, there still aren't too many people treating the braxton canon as modern standards. (obviously there are some exceptions to this generalisation... james carter rather bravely asserted braxton's continuance with the tradition by including comp. 40q on his album conversin' with the elders; actually, that's one braxton cover i particularly like, and coincidentally, the original version is next up under the braxtothon microscope, when i get round to that..!) mr naughton came up with a worthwhile and interesting reading here, one which situates b. within the tradition without sacrificing the greater freedoms he represents. i've enjoyed listening to it :)

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