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 :)

* see comments


centrifuge said...

1. nine notes, ten notes... yep, it's pretty trivial but i do make a point of correcting my mistakes when i catch them. having said "for the record" that it was a ten-note phrase, i now want to ensure that i have set the matter straight somewhere on the blog..!

2. it's worth mentioning that b's own version of "skippy" (on his monk covers album for black saint) is taken so fast that all swung rhythm disappears from it entirely. would monk have approved? probably not (he dropped the tune from rotation early on, fearing that it would become merely an obstacle race for horn players)... then again he probably wouldn't have approved of dolphy's tribute to him either. or would he..?

centrifuge said...

erm... (re-)reading this now, i own a rather shame-faced to alex hawkins, at least - and very porbably to others, but particularly to mr hawkins since i even wrote about him on the blog (feb 28th 2010) - and then corresponded with him and took back (mar 22nd) a lot of pretty rash assumptions i'd rather generously allowed myself to make first time round ...

sorry alex - if by any chance you are reading... did you put it (or any) on a cd yet btw? i am, as they say, out of the loop (indeed off in my own little world over here, as you can see..!)

centrifuge said...

(that is, "i *owe* a(n)... apology" to alex... not wot i wrote

(cant be arsed to proofread myself tonight, too shagged-out... ill this week, better today tho)

interesting that i cocked up the apology tho -! sort of ;-) got there in the end (fwiw i think most people who say they owe an apology are still disinclined to give it when it comes down to it..! standard behaviour for us nervy intellectual types (which is whyy i'm trying to move away from it... standard behaviour that is)