Tuesday, March 29, 2011

braxbites #3: the '97 ninetet

(not a nonet, notice)

this was volume four i was listening to - the one i acquired over the festive season from good old leo records; i already have the other three (also purchased directly from the label) and wrote briefly about one set here. this is a line-up which really isn't designed to welcome newcomers much, those considering the idea of flirting with b's music not likely to feel unintimidated by the mental image of six sax players and a three-man rhythm trying desperately to make itself heard. or, as it turns out, the problem might be just the opposite, namely that the very spare and economical "head" arrangements for this group (in which players are often initially "hidden" by attacks being perfectly duplicated) might engender an immediate assumption that there won't be enough variety in the sound palette. in any case wrong, wrong, wrong. this music is packed full of treats for the ear once it's up and running - and it's surely understood by now that all gtm takes a while to get up and running, the theme being always necessary to suck one into the required receptive listening state; again - this in itself is a sort of paradox, since the "organised awkwardness" of a diamond-clef theme must be an instant turn-off for a lot of unconvinced jazzers out there; but for the initiated the effect the themes have is precisely that they take us there, to the place where nothing is true and everything is permitted.

with two discs to work from here, there are general points to be made - in addition to what i've already said above -  as well as a few choice miniatures to single out for the reader's attention.

it's a feature of b's music generally (certainly from the "collage phase" onwards, if not before), and i've mentioned it before myself, but it bears repeating: the density of the musical ideas once the pieces are fully underway here is astounding. with no sense of rush, the music moves at tremendous "speed", therefore - that is, the information being exchanged between players and listener is delivered at a terrific rate (*1). at this relatively early stage in the evolution of gtm, it may perhaps some surprise some readers that this already the case; indeed, plenty of people seem to have convinced themselves (usually on short acquaintance) that b's composition took a step backwards round about this time (*2) and didn't start to expand again until the third species, accelerator-class pieces began to appear, well into the new century. this is a mistaken impression, naturally. what might sound at first like stiff, mechanical themes or arrangements are actually filled with life and breathing space, inspired by true creative magic to engender all manner of musical possibilities. for this listener, at least, the effect whenever i listen is invariably "holistic": it satisfies me intellectually and emotionally at the same time, fostering in me a sense of happiness and joy that at times becomes outright, childlike delight. yes, i've said all this before and, again, it's worth repeating (as many times as it might take for the message to sink in!).

when listening to groups from this era i often forget temporarily that i'm not listening to mary halvorson on guitar, so used am i to her presence by now; kevin o'neil doesn't actually sound like her as such (and of course mary h. would generally announce herself pretty early on with one of her signature "wobbles"), it's just that it seems as if she must always have been present! (*3) - o'neil struck me as a little subdued on the second set (comp. 214) in particular, not really getting a chance to nudge his way into the spotlight until 25 mins are on the clock, but then it's all been about the horns up till then, and no great surprise there. (he does get to finish up all by himself, this not being a piece which ends mid-theme; some gtm performances do, some don't. the fact that a string player gets to close out the piece reminded me at once of comp. 63, from berlin '76 - among other occasions it's been performed *4.)

the rhythmic "collisions" in both pieces are frequently amazing. already there will have been sectional playing at work (at least i presume so) and the separate sub-groups will have been allowed autonomy at certain stages of the performances; one way in which this is expressed is in the different rhythms and tempos which are taken up by each trio at times. the resulting complexity is at once mind-boggling and simply beautiful. at one such point during comp. 213 i found myself visualising an "impossibly unpredictable complex clock-structure" - the image of a clock mechanism being one which has come to my mind before during such listenings - and a little later in the same piece it suddenly occurred to me that b. has a total fascination for the rhythms of the rail - at a later stage of gtm, trains will become an explicit part of the title-imagery for the compositions (*5). but the idea was already there, and as if to prove it, at 15.50 in comp. 214 one section launches into comp. 34, this proving so infectious that it quickly spreads to the whole ensemble and transforms the stage briefly into a crazy street party, though still with a sense of the locomotive somehow running through it (*6).

five minutes into the same piece (no need to do this "in order" for a change), we witness the unfolding of a highly complex extension of one of b's early-70s ballad structures; within another minute, this in turn has spawned its own extensions and outgrowths, speeding the listening ear way beyond the starting point. and of course comp. 213 also contains numerous moments which leave me sighing at the beauty of it all, and others which generate real heat and excitement - well, this in itself is nothing new, obviously, it was (again) a feature of the "great quartet" (*7), but throughout the 45th minute of this piece, for example, the band shows it's certainly not all about finesse and filigree, norton whipping up a sandstorm and everyone quickly getting involved. there are spellbinding blasts of concentrated dissonance such as the one which kicks in at around 34 mins (can that be anyone other than the leader, dominating the sound there?). and comp. 214 has plenty of excitement of its own, a fabulous cacophony around 7.45 suddenly making me think of some immense shipyard, just for a few seconds... the musical landscape seems to shift so fast at this point in the proceedings that it's as if we are viewing it from a helicopter - which in turn is whisked around at the mercy of a gigantic length of elastic :)

well, you get the idea... i didn't give either disc my full and undivided attention, and if i had, i'm sure i could have written far more about the music... but it's always the case with this sort of thing that mapping the journey from start to finish would be inviting insanity. in any case, there were plenty of times when the sounds claimed my ears completely and drew me away from whatever i was doing - this, too, is always the case when i "listen"  this way. i love this music. enough said!

* see comments

1 comment:

centrifuge said...

1. stuart broomer has described the braxton quartet as one of the two "quickest" in modern creative music (as measured by most complex musical events per minute; the other group was parker/guy/lytton). i read this in a review of a marilyn crispell album published in the webzine *point of departure* several years ago, though i would imagine he has also asserted the same thing elsewhere...

2. actually, some people "think" that b's eighties music was itself a step down from his seventies output. it's not even worth refuting this one.

3. of course, the "heir apparent" (THB) was not yet present either. in retrospect it seems kinda hard to believe that these two stalwarts weren't there right from the beginning of this phase... but of course they weren't.

4. the 2007 bolzano concert (with the instabile orchestra: album on RAI trade) opens with comp. 63; and the '92 los angeles bootleg (see TCF boots page) contains another version.

5. particularly true of the iridium box set.

6. comp. 34, waxed in the studio in late 1981, appears on the 1982 antilles album. i had it on my third playlist (see post of 24th march 2008)... the piece is based around a rhythmic motif which seems clearly inspired by the sound of a train. the effect relies on the role of the drummer, and is vividly brought to life in the studio version by ed blackwell. the impromptu (?) rendition in comp. 214 sees kevin norton referencing the earlier version without directly mimicking it.

7. like many others, when i say "great quartet" i'm talking about crispell, dresser, hemingway; but it's only fair to regard the early 70s band with holland and altschul as a classic band also, whatever their limitations may ultimately have been. there were therefore two versions of the "first great quartet" (wheeler/lewis) - and two of the later band also for that matter (lindberg preceding dresser). but i may very well end up concluding that the quartet/s with ray anderson deserve equal status with the earlier groups... for this reason i still single out the '85 band as the "great" quartet, since this represents the culmination of b's projects in this format.