Monday, February 28, 2011

london postscript

... so, anyway, as atanase and i made our way from the overland rail link to the tube station for the second leg of the well-timed journey back, we agreed that we have (as an unfortunate side-effect) become spoiled by the condensed self-imposed educational regimes we have both undergone. "we have heard so much, in such a short space of time", said a., "- perhaps if we saw that concert a few years ago, we would think it was great, you know." and yep, i did know cos it's precisely true. there was nothing wrong with it - and indeed much right with it. yes, at times we probably ask too much (of ourselves and/or others)

creative free jazz - it is true, one never runs out of steam so long as there is fuel in the setup, never runs out of potential because (as with improv) one is required only to bring oneself fully to the date, a basic essential requirement for making the scene in the first place... yes, just for turning up - but this rather than some checklisted bag of trix.

but as regards any sort of cutting edge, right now in the distant hinterlands where only frontier posts yet subsist, this was a long way back from even getting news from there, not so much as a postcard. as regards the state of the avant-garde... i have been planning to make an examination of whether that particular french borrowing is salvageable, can be reclaimed from the dustbin of polite utility... watch this space, just don't hold yr breath, y'all know the drill by now :)

feet of clay

john tchicai with john edwards and tony marsh
cafe oto, london e8
monday 27th september 2010

the scene: as i said recently, it had been almost three years since my last return to london (mrs c. and i lived there from 1995 until 2003). and, despite the continual talk of recession between then and now, it's obvious that parts of the capital are still being bombarded with money. little by little, london is becoming more of a "science-fiction" city - certainly it looks it compared to swansea (where i live currently), which is still struggling to drag itself out of the 1980s, never mind into the 21st century. much as i hate being made to feel like a tourist in a city where i used to live, that is now pretty much the reality for me. public transport in london these days is best accessed with the "oyster card", which is read electronically and is designed to save both time and money - but also (apparently) to trick the unfamiliar into paying more for their journeys than they needed to, if one is not told how to use it properly. (i was lucky in this regard: when i arrived at paddington, i encountered that extreme rarity, a helpful london transport employee, who explained to me how to avoid getting ripped off.)

quite a lot of the stations have undergone extensive cosmetic and structural work since my last visit - some of them i wouldn't have recognised from my days as a resident. a lot of the trains are new and (gasp!) clean; the london underground used to be notorious for how dirty its trains were. down by the tracks, there are now advertisements which function like video screens; somehow, these seem to fit into the background so easily that i'd been standing right in front of one for a few minutes before i realised what i was seeing. yes, all very futuristic - and you don't see anything like that out in the sticks. (one friend that i caught up with during my visit said that when these "moving ads" were first introduced, it was like something out of blade runner: a lot of the stations themselves were being totally gutted, wires hanging out all over the place, debris everywhere, nothing working properly apart from the new video screens. that, at least, sounds about right and kind of familiar..!)

- the relevance of all this is that plenty of the capital looks just the same as i remember it. naturally,  the money has not reached everywhere. as atanase and i took our bus north from the city (london's financial district), we passed several huge, and hugely expensive, new buildings which have sprung up just in the last year or so, looking almost obscene in times of general belt-tightening; but it didn't take long for things to change. within a mile or two of the city, the scenery began to look exactly as it had ten or fifteen years ago. as the bus continued on towards dalston, the lack of money most people are experiencing became more accurately reflected in our surroundings. a few miles further on, by the time it crosses the north circular, the A10 has become the great cambridge road; this far south, it's just plain old kingsland high road and looks every bit as run-down and depressing as it used to in my day. i remember it as being the sort of place one would not want to stand still for more than a few seconds, and that's the way it looks now: no new buildings, no tarted-up shops, just the same filthy old store-fronts and forbidding housing estates. it's pretty close to the city, but the money hasn't stretched this far and probably never will. so it came as a bit of a shock to arrive at our destination, tucked away just off the main road, and find it a very trendy-looking bistro serving japanese cuisine and organic beer. what the hell is the cafe oto doing here of all places?(*1) yet it seems to be flourishing, and in the few short years it's been open, its's hosted hundreds of creative musicians already. it's a decent space to play in too, roomy yet intimate - not the easiest combination of qualities to achieve.

the music: aha, yeah, the music... about that shit... my lack of interesting detail retained from the actual set(s) has nothing much to do with the time which has elapsed between then and right now, writing after one of my (kinda patented - if you know what i'm saying) unseemly delays, one of my continuing (as yet) down-phases for creative expression. no, even at the time i struggled to grasp hold of mr tchicai's transmissions as they were unfurled into the willing audience's "welcome space": most of my observation at the time ended up being hijacked somewhat by the interaction between edwards (whom i had never seen before) and marsh (whom i'd never even heard of, though by the time our third hand for the evening - see below - had finished explicating marsh's background and connections to me, it felt as if i "should" have heard of him (*2)).

... tchicai - we were discussing on the bus the guy's "free jazz cv" etc. atanase forgot about new york eye and ear control for a minute there, but we pretty much agreed that a) that's not exactly one of the first few ayler sessions you'd place at the top of the (any) list, good line-up though it is, and b) neither of us has ever had much enthusiasm for ascension as it happens. it fell again to the third set of ears at our table tonight, the presence formerly known as king kennytone (tPFKaKK) to remind me later that tchicai was always the voice of moderation on these occasions anyway, had never been a balls-out player in the first place - though he was never averse to participating, clearly...

... in any case [another phrase you'll have to sit through many times in these ramblings...] YES as i was SAYING - marsh and edwards, very fertile partnership there, impressed by both over the course, by edwards especially who popped by between sets to exchange catch-ups with one of my companions - very energetic and creative player, great engine to have in the arsenal so to speak... mr tchicai - impressed me anyway, in the end, more by his manner of inhabiting his body with poise and grace and continuing to communicate with a horn (tenor sax these days of course, though tPFKaKK said later to me that he might as well still play alto, his vocab still comes across as alto-based and i would concur with this, in so far as i am even qualified to express an opinion on that given my difficulties focussing on mr t's playing at times and resultant large gaps in my ear memory of the gig *3) in much the same way, with the same grace, the same poise and with quiet, serene dignity. in my "living legend" polarity he is at the gayle end of things rather than down in the muck and entrails with mr sonny simmons. occasionally during the evening he produced a timbral distortion or three, usually a short string of firecrackers and sounded immediately compelling, but never seemed or looked or sounded likely to follow these up... and didn't. the trouble with that for me is that those distortions are what my listening soul needs and craves, the family of languages which i speak with most familiarity after all these incarnations - and you know, there was plenty to distract me in the engine room where edwards and marsh, as previously stated, worked really well together.

john edwards has played around the british scene (whatever that is) - or southern english (?) scene for years now, and as i rediscovered last year, played with the band GOD way back in the "dawn of the nineties" - atanase has seen him before on several occasions and ...aKK is well familiar with him too, but my first live impressions were, ah, very impressive... comment dire impressionnantes ;-)  the guy is all over his axe and never looks like slipping into a groove or going off the boil even. constant intereaction with the drummer and fast pickup, both ways. scattershot approach to kit from marsh, standard euro free improv calling-card used on this occasion, presumably, more as a "flag of convenience" since mr marsh has played in numerous different types of modern ensemble and would not, one guesses, have played fusion in this way... but plenty of energy is co-created and for sure, if i have trouble (and i do, i do) pinning down the tchicai transmission as it unfurls and dances in the audience-created "after-air", this is not to say that he ever sounds out of place or ill at ease, far from it, his manner of being here is exactly as stated above. poise... grace... lots of practice at being at ease with oneself and one's surroundings... and in this way i can see to what extent the experience was inspiring, can continue to be inspiring.

otherwise all i remember from that first set at this distance is that when edwards got the bow out, i wasn't  greatly convinced by his arco technique. (this impression was sharply overturned during the second set!)

there was an intermission which did not last long, the organic beer was sampled... was delicious actually (... and although four quid a pint seemed like a total burn i am also well aware that a nite-venue elsewhere in london, or in that swansea for that matter, would doubtless see me extorted to the same tune for a smallish bottle of something nasty... after having to shout at the bar staff, playing human dodgems, etc etc)

second set was latterly spoiled a bit (for me, alone among the three of us as it turned out) by a familliar problem since i left london, i.e. the tourist's dread of being stranded at last-tube time: the last number went on and on and on and then wound down and started up again, in such a way as to leave one in no doubt that there would be even still yet further rounds of what was basically a pretty groovy closing number, for all its protracted length, and i would have been happier if we could have started earlier (no support act, plenty of time sitting around waiting etc) and fucken finished earlier so i didn't have to give my neurotic arse a minor aneurysm. (dalston not on the tube, don't forget... overland rail or nightbus - as it was: we couldn't have got there any later, but we arrived at walking pace just in time for the right train and were back at a's way earlier than anticipated. which was nice) - up until this point i was more fully involved in the second set, and also had plenty of leisure to observe how wrong hasty impressions can (all-too) frequently be, during a number penned by one of mr t's scandinavian friends, a finnish guy whose name alas has gone now (hadn't heard of him) - but i believe the piece was called "undertow", or the equivalent thereof in finnish, and it was to a great extent dominated by edwards rock-solid arco playing with some very close control required as regards dynamic shifts, etc. (in the first set, sounding off-note and awkward to my mind with the bow, mr e was possibly just doing that thing, fucking shit up to see what bursts into being as a result - sometimes maybe nothing, but sometimes something, so hey...)

i do remember that there was at least one outright "sax solo" in an evening of freely-flexible, partly-prestructured free jazz that i did really enjoy - it hasn't stayed with me though. at one point mr t stepped up to the mic without his sax in his mouth and at least two thirds of our table held its breath in "little dread", but - well, the whole delivering-the-message-through-words part of things is inherently problematic for me 99% of the time (for reasons... mmm, *4), and wasn't especially enjoyable here, but the brief knowledge that john tchicai wanted to share with us had resonance with me at once, reminded me precisely, in fact, of something so profoundly linked to my current (and recent) patterns of living that i shan't quote the wording now so as not to get into any of it, not now - but even at the time i took note, took it in bodily and openly and in (slightly embarrassed) silence.

thassit really - no more specifics forthcoming, not now - but that's enough, for me to get to my point. if there is one:

is it fair - to oneself or to anyone else - to demand that a real-life encounter with a "living legend" (and tchicai's free jazz cv is basically still impeccable, no matter what) be life-changing, huge? is that in fact what i was expecting? no... atanase and i had discussed this beforehand - and ...aKK had seen mr t's "battle of the red rose (ahem)" encounter with mr parker, had never thought of tchicai as a fierce energy player, and indeed he probably never has been, though he can deploy the vocab base as and when - so no, i was not expecting a life-conversion. but i did struggle consciously upstream, as has been my wont these last few years, to see what new information can be mined out of the experience, and i kept feeling that i just wasn't getting it. i don't think anyone else took it as being massive or fabulous or amazing either, though i'd be surprised if anyone left without feeling at least somewhat cheered and uplifted, the ambience of the event being so warmly positive... what was there to get or "get"? still not sure about this, but maybe the non-pushy reminder that even living legends remain just human is itself enough to have mulled over slowly, these five months...

* see comments

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

braxbites #2: solo bagpipes

having said a couple of posts back that i wanted to hear matthew welch's 10 [Solo Bagpipe] Compositions 2000 (album credited to b., as composer), i was pretty quickly hooked up courtesy of a friend of mine, and found myself just this afternoon sampling this extraordinary creation. (said friend had affixed a post-it over the cd envelope with cover your ears! written on it and sure enough, the dogs weren't particularly chuffed about the afternoon's aural treats i don't think, but i did find it a pretty interesting listen and not overly terrifying... (perhaps it does wear you down a bit after a while - well, read on).

straight away one of the (few) advantages of the instrument is on display - the inherent capacity for multiphonics introduced by the drone, against which the melody line is usually set; this actually provides quite a hypnotic sound environment which is very definitely a good start when dealing with this composer's music. so initial hopes were quite high once the album was underway... and the player's skill on his instrument is pretty evident early on also. i enjoyed the first cut and then found myself zoning off a bit during the second and third. too literally hypnotic? well, at any rate i was jerked back to attention by the start of the fourth piece (comp. 106a), which is played without the drone... and this immediately got me thinking about the clear disadvantages of the instrument, and specifically the fact that use of the drone automatically chains the player tightly to one key, every damn time, this being a bit of a problem really for a solo instrument. furthermore the keying action of the melody pipe(s?) tends to produce quite similar attacks each time, at least when the drone is being sounded at the same time; hence, not surprisingly, with this on as semi-background music i found the drone-accompanied performances (seven out of the ten) pretty interchangeable. this is NOT proper listening and therefore not a proper assessment of the performances, never mind of the interpretations which may well be skillful and faithful. (one day - though god knows when - i will try and make direct comparisons with other versions of the same pieces.) still, the way it worked out, the three remaining pieces were by far the most interesting for me and ultimately the only ones which fully commanded my attention. 

welch's 106a grabs the attention right from the start, then, partly because one is immediately aware of what's missing (i.e. the drone) but also because of the variations which welch is able to bring to the attacks once he can give all his attention to the "tuneful" part of the instrument. the piece begins with a lovely falling and rising effect and immediately follows it up with a very precise timbral distortion. over the course of the piece the player is finally able to give a clear picture of just what he can do in terms of close control (another essential quality for taking on b's music). it's an intriguing performance and track seven, comp. 119g, is if anything even better, weighing in at just over two minutes but again utilising a variety of extended techniques (tonal distortions and modulations, sub-vocalisation, multiphonics - at certain pitches the single reed itself throws off all manner of complex higher harmonics) which the maestro must surely have been delighted by. 

even these two pieces, however, fade in the memory compared with the penultimate track, comp. 118e which sounds as if it's played entirely on the mouthpiece alone. comparisons must immediately be made with zorn's classic guide to strategy (master)pieces, nor would these be unfavourable since welch again demonstrates remarkable powers of control, concentration and precision over the course of these eleven fascinating minutes (well - i found it fascinating anyway! i love this kind of thing). as with zorn's (or george lewis's) mouthpiece performances, there is plenty of dry humour here also. (this of course is another key braxton characteristic, albeit one which is too-frequently overlooked.)

i have not finished with this one by any means - though it might be a while before i return to it - but it demanded a brief mention in the meantime. i have no doubt that b. was pleased and proud with his student's work on this recording. can i necessarily recommend it as listening material? mmmmmmmmmmmmmmrrrmrmrmrmrmrmmm that's really a very personal choice i think, i just can't say for sure! but it's definitely an intriguing entry in the canon and i'm glad someone was mad and obsessive enough to do it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

braxbites #1: jump or die

[the night of music (sunday 16th jan) was indeed followed by a morning of music on monday 17th, but that was about it until now, the way it panned out. i still had a small pile of partly-heard and unheard cds and a bunch of unheard live material. however, the very first cd i bought with my xmas money was one i managed to play a few times, and under different circumstances each time...]

jump or die - think fast!, in other words, and then commit yourself - this is the name under which two small groups of high-impact, left-field improvisers left their mark on modern music in the early nineties, with the enlisted help of three additional players. splatter trio, it seems, was led by composer, percussionist, arranger (etc) gino robair with multi-reedist dave barrett and myles boisen on chordophones; debris, from a completely different part of the united states was apparently headed up by multi-reedist steve norton with cornetist keith hedger, drummer curt newton and utility man arthor weinstein on a variety of "wildcard" instruments. once the two groups had been linked together, with two recording sessions to be produced by norton and robair, three further musicians were pulled in: a trombone, another multi-reed and a mallet percussion specialist. the pieces played, all by mr b. in this case of course, were collected in sheet-music form at wesleyan by guest reedman randy mckean; they are (mostly) collaged and vary each time as regards instrumentation, all then players never being heard at once. the two pieces (cuts 5 and 9 on the album) which feature a nonet are both conducted by robair, who does not play on either.

the album... is just a remarkably well-aspected and -favoured meeting of like minds, and the musical record of it buzzes with excitement like a live wire, right from the first few notes.


as promised, i'm gonna cut back on my ambitions for these interim articles, so i shall limit myself to two general points of discussion here. after all, each and every selection on offer has been lovingly chosen, arranged and rehearsed (?) just for this one-off date (*), it would be so easy to succumb to temptation and examine each and every performance; ah, but then it'd never get written up knowing me and besides... this is nonetheless not core canon, brilliant as it is.

1. the band chooses material which in a number of cases has never been recorded by the maestro himself. some of these pieces were doubtless performed in concert over the years, though how anyone apart from the band members in question would know their opus numbers... well, anyway, it's great to have these works undertaken here. (and of course some of the pieces have been waxed before, as regards which, see below...) the very first cut on jump or die, a collage structure for the two core groups as one septet (with subgroupings as arranged beforehand), begins with comp. 40e, a number which left me scratching my head - until a check in at restructures confirmed that the piece does not appear in the core discog as such - and which hides behind its numbered door another barking-mad march, indeed a mad hares' march, all springy in the first part of the theme and pinging all over the place in the second. how did we never get an official version of this? praise be to norton and robair :)  - we are also treated to a "mash-up" of comps. 50 & 53 (where the former is again unrecorded and the latter but recently issued as secondary-territory material on the rastascan dvd... mmm, must try and get hold of that..!). comp. 48, one of four "straight" readings (i.e. with no secondary materials) was a "premiere" at the time: b's own (second? third? etc) great quartet would reclaim it a year later, at yoshi's, and indeed unveil it as the opening number... but these reprobates actually got there first. (sort of.)  comp. 15, again, is otherwise unrepresented in the guthartz discography.

- this is just great, that these guys managed to put so much love and heart and edge and stomach into the project and were prepared to get unheard music out there as part of the agenda, ah! makes one glad of the human race after all. (sank 'eavens... for free jazz, not leetle girlz on zis occasion... down, maurice)

- that first cut btw - it takes in five different sets of material overall, the most notable and eventful collaging clearly rehearsed, with debris' collective incursions of comp. 69q broadsiding the down-and-dirty rendition of comp. 40p being teased out by splatter - 40p so memorably brought to life by b. and muhal before, sounding oddly light on its feet here voiced by sax(c)ello, but very effective rhythmically; and its that rhythm which is casually undercut when the faster 69q is joined by the other four guys. this (critical) forcing together of parallel horizontal strategies in an unstable balance is a really crucial (er, critical) element of b's music, as was well understood eighteen years ago by these guys here in the experimental chamber. as it happens, today i last heard this piece an hour or so after listening to '97 era gtm and this clash-of-tempi therefore ended up reminding me of that... but preceded it by more than five years. terrific opener, needless to say. (and the first entries of singing alto early on are very braxtonesque indeed... someone's really been working at that!)

2. this album contains the best and most exciting version of comp. 23d i have ever heard, not including the "original" (i.e. the '74 studio version with wheeler & co), though it is actually quite a lot more exciting than that one even, given the way it gets turned inside-out long before the pulse track (108a) even pokes its nose round the door - the actual collaging doesn't begin until 6.30ish (out of an 8.30 track), but this one has gone stratospheric long since, has actually come down to a more earthly orbit again by the time the pulse track kicks in... along the way there, the stripped down combination of robair + boisen, norton + newton is a highly flammable recipe as it turns out, and all manner of controlled mayhem erupts from what remains a very sedate, wistful-yet-cheerful exposition; with the fireworks over, it's the two lieutenants who pick up 108a and the leader-producers who are left to rub up against it. just... fabulous.

yes yes... "every home should have one"... any bigtime braxtophiles want and need this album. they all jumped, every time. there were no casualties

* see comments