Tuesday, October 4, 2011

braxtothon vol.2/5.01: background "history"

that is: history ('fin voilà quoi, merci m. derrida)

ok, so... after all this mulling and distilling, plenty of time to reflect deeply and all that... here's how it breaks down:

mr lewis never exactly spells anything out, and heaven forbid the spectre of QT be invoked - oops - (*1) but in ch.7 of his magnum opus he nonetheless wishes us to understand that competitiveness, or the implied threat of competitiveness, was an issue for the aacm when things really got underway (*2). in purely metaphysical terms - or indeed totally pragmatic ones - this is hardly surprising since a large number of alpha genius-level creators had swum upstream and arrived in one small co-operative pool, each with his /(occasionally/potentially) her own ideas about everything: harmony, structure, composition, tonality, instrumental technique and historical interpretation, strategies of self-promotion, the works. that doesn't leave a lot of elbow room at those meetings... everyone better wise up and look sharp, constantly on, the reason above all why the use of psychonautic triskaidekamania (*3) was strictly off the menu on any and all such occasions - iirc muhal chuckled when recalling that little detail (NO DRUGS) in his interview with hank shteamer - not meaning "who the hell would wanna do that?" but rather "haha, no, i've been there once or twice and that way of life wasn't gonna cut it..." - these guys had not arrived at the small pool just to indulge in a pissing contest, they had the team for the job because they knew precisely how goddamn high the odds were stacked against them, and hard work was an absolute basic requirement for involvement - a curious enthusiast would be offered plenty of chances to realise he was in way over his head, nor would it take long...

NOW - that's the basic environmental context, but there is another matter again, focussing in a level closer on the perceived competition between messrs braxton and mitchell, supposedly an open secret among music connoisseurs, or collectors at least... which presumably includes critics too... tongues might be persuaded to wag after a generous single malt or brandy, who knows... scene gossip... whatever... it's widely "known" or at least taken for granted (apparently) in some circles.

the context within which it emerges in a power... regards the question (slightly vexed as it turnes out) of "who got there first" when it came to the aacm in europe - "history" once again told us all that the art ensemble blazed the first trail, and braxton and co came next. right? well, that's not quite the version which unfolds in lewis, it has to be said... the art ensemble did indeed make the journey first (well... sort of *4), but they didn't necessarily come up with the original idea. in their interviews with lewis for his book, b. and leroy jenkins both say that their unit with leo smith was the first to be talking about, hey, let's move to paris and see how that goes; and b. continues: they mentioned this at a meeting and got shot down by the art ensemble especially - "aw man, you guys are thinking about going to europe? we need you here." (*5) before you know it, the aeoc is off to paris and it's already a done deal. see you later fellows... and that in turn, by b's own admission, spurred the others on to get their asses over there regardless, b. himself first, and not wasting any time. (priceless anecdote in one of b's interviews about the look on joseph jarman's face when he subsequently ran into braxton near montparnasse.)

- ok, so we've already established that the south side of chicago is crawling with weapons-grade talent by this time (1969), and within that basic framework, the two outfits thrust out into the hinterlands to scout and build roads are basically the art ensemble and braxton/smith/jenkins... taking the aacm to europe then becomes a specific concern, and a race is begun which the art ensemble win, if only by rather underhand tactics... ok, so we can see how all this could lead to a bit of bad blood (at worst) or serious rivalry at any rate (jenkins himself was clear at least in his own mind about this, as i've said before). but then, for b. at least, paris just never really worked out that well and like miles before him, he was called back (very short version of story) to work while the art ensemble carried all before them with a show so up-front exotic that the french could pigeonhole it and rapture over it simultaneously; few would have concentrated on the quiet one (mitchell) who kept to himself, little or no make-up... one might not necessarily notice him much at all, never mind identify him correctly as another super-intellect like braxton and therefore potentially threatening to french artistic hegemony in this field of serious music: when b. announced himself as a composer not a jazz musician, remember (lock and elsewhere), he reckons he was more or less told to go back to swinging in his tree; in paris it was jazz or nothing for his type, and the love affair was stillborn effectively. mitchell... well, he went about it all a bit differently, only very gradually declaring his interest in "serious composition" (though of course this is precisely how the aacm saw all their musical endeavours, and rightly so) - this difference in approach is in turn emblematic of a more fundamental distinction, as we shall see.

even the rivalries between the two bands - which are all perfectly understandable really, there would more or less have to be some unresolved ego issues (at what was still a very early stage) - is a bit of a red herring when we're really concerned with the relationship between mitchell and braxton specifically. now, b. is several years younger and for a while during his formative years, as he acknowledges later (to lock) he learns more from mitchell than vice versa. when he gets into the army (already mentioned this also), b. works with joe stephenson who compliments him on his incredible appetite for work - joe can only remember one student who was equally driven about his own music, a cat named roscoe mitchell... back in chicago, the latter gets the first record date out, and as a leader to boot; braxton is again slightly behind, and it's a sideman credit first time out (though since the leader is muhal, this is almost a special exception); but b. is quick to catch up and, in any case, within a year or two he has dropped on the music community the depth charge that was/is for alto, stealing a great deal of thunder in the process. so... b's internal drive may well have been fuelled by some mutual rivalry at first, or at least a desire, not necessarily fully conscious, to feel that he was on a level equal to mitchell, whatever else he was doing; but the thing is, these two are both (quite clearly) smart enough to realise early on that they are really no "threat" to each other at all, far from it. they play with fundamentally different approaches to music which transcend mere style (even as the results may sometimes sound similar in a given instance). braxton seems much of the time to need to say all he can say, as quickly as he can squeeze it all in; mitchell naturally thinks in rhythms which are much longer and slower, which take time to develop into a form which can be recognised from without. [this in itself is a gross generalisation but one which (i think) is based on something useful.] mitchell, let's not forget, played that gig in 1976 (*6) where the audience turned up expecting to see braxton and were vocally disappointed; the late arrival's response is that he proceeds to play one phrase, all jagged lines and sharp corners, over and over again with only silence in between, for five minutes before even introducing any tonal modulation, and somehow, somehow this actually did get the rowdy listeners eating out of his hand. it's hard to imagine anyone else utilising such an approach with much success... but then this is typical of the man: although on that occasion he was motivated by a need to bring to heel a difficult audience, he has spoken more generally of his need to warm up gradually before the saxophone tells him "ok, you can play me now". (*7)

by the time 1976 is drawing to a close and the chance to do a duo album comes round, you can't tell me there is still any serious question of unresolved rivalry: on the contrary, using the aacm's turn-it-all-into-art alchemical principles, they encourage each other to the "loftiest heights" critics are so fond of envisaging (but which seldom seem to exist in this imperfect world), producing music in the process which, as we know, had professional producers getting all hot under the collar and saying things they would never normally say... yes, each creator knows the other will be playing at the top of his game, but that need not be intimidating. the album is straightforwardly balanced: two players, one side for mitchell's music, one for b's, absolute equality and mutual respect - and if it's still technically mitchell's show, duets with anthony braxton not the other way round, this is really only a fairly trivial thing, perhaps fitting in any case because of that slight seniority, and besides - within a year the roles will have been reversed, mitchell (and jarman and...) appearing on b's album and playing b's music, too. it all works itself out perfectly and by 1980, if not before, the two men are co-leading a creative orchestra quite successfully on the euro tour circuit. rivalry? really? and this is why i believe b. when he says that it is non-existent - i think perhaps the real truth is that whatever ego-related static may have once pertained to the situation, it has so long since been resolved that it's scarcely worth remembering, at any rate. both men are creators, first and foremost. no time to dick around - and like that, we're finally off and rolling again.

* see comments


centrifuge said...

ok, so it required a bit more tweakage than i thought... hence the slight delay (which will have surprised no-one...)


1. i am of course referring to the scene in *reservoir dogs* wherein mr pink berates mr white and mr blond for their mutual hostility and aggression, suggesting that in his experience such behaviour is more typical of, erm, the african-american community. i don't mean to endorse this stereotype any more than tarantino did, but it *is* often perceived to be the case...

2. - ... and i believe lewis was tacitly acknowledging this. he includes jenkins' assertions regarding the competitiveness of the aeoc, and of braxton with mitchell, in the main body of the text while relegating to a footnote b's own denial of any personal rivalry. possibly what this really shows us is that jenkins, who was not from chicago himself, found the south chicago scene to be very competitive when he arrived, or perhaps he was just making a specific point about those musicians... as i've said before, it's (alas) not as if we can very well ask him for clarification now.

3. i thought i'd coined this, very much with tongue in cheek, but a quick search online shows that plenty of others have used the word, and to mean something different... so i'd better explain. "thirteen" is slang for marijuana among bikers in particular (so i gather). i daresay plenty of people will have come across the term triskaidekaphobia... i didn't realise any related terms were already in circulation..!

centrifuge said...

4. actually not quite. lewis establishes one thing with absolute clarity, namely the basic question of which aacm musician was "first man on the moon" as it were: steve mccall was over in europe as early as 1967, playing with american expatriates from the older generation, notably don byas and dexter gordon. whilst this technically constitutes the first aacm trip "over there", it doesn't really, since mccall was not representing that organisation per se in his work at that time.

- it's tempting to suppose that since braxton, jenkins and smith recorded (for byg) as a quartet with mccall before the decade was out, this makes it likely that with mccall already in europe, the remaining three would have been thinking in terms of parisian relocations; but this would be incorrect, since they didn't become a quartet *until* they all found themselves together in paris. (at least... i think that's right!)

5. this is a direct quote from one of b's two interviews for the aacm book; the words are actually attributed by him to lester bowie. (lewis, p.219)

6. 23rd august, to be precise, at the montreux jazz festival. the result (a solo version of "nonaah") makes up the first side of mitchell's double album of the same name.

7. i can't remember where i read this, so it's not a verbatim quote, but i trust my memory (at least on this occasion..!).