Monday, July 18, 2016

Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat's "Live at the Kessler"

I'm an expat Noo Yawk Yankee, but I've loved Texas blues-rock ever since I was a snotnose trying to cop Johnny Winter licks back on Lawn Guyland in the early '70s. Back then, all the black people I knew hated blues, and all the white people I knew thought it was Led Zeppelin. Imagine my surprise and delight when I moved to Dallas in '78 and everyone I met -- old or young, black, white, or brown -- loved Jimmy Reed and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Then I moved to Fort Worth, where the New Bluebird Nite Club was as close to Utopia as I'll experience in this life: local folks from the Lake Como neighborhood, soul-patch-and-shades-sporting white blues freaks, hipis, punks, TCU frat/sorority kids and their parents (who might have gone to the Skyline Ballroom to see Jimmy, Bobby, and Howlin' Wolf).

The Fabulous Thunderbirds played stripped-down blues and R&B without the hipi bullshit, and T-Birds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan's little brother Stevie was as aggressive and fiery as a young white amalgam of Albert King and Hendrix when I heard him in a 6th Street dive down in Austin, fall of '79. Then there was the legion of hot axe-slingers who played their way out of the Cellar clubs in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, and into the stadiums: Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, John Nitzinger, Bugs Henderson.

Jim Suhler's a muso in that grand tradition, active since the '80s, fronting his own band Monkey Beat since the early '90s, concurrently touring as Delaware Destroyer George Thorogood's guitar foil since '99. That's around the time he gave me one of my favorite live music experiences of all ti-i-ime, when I took my oldest, guitar-slinging daughter (then in her goth phase) to the Dallas guitar show, where she wanted to see Radish and Kenny Wayne Sheppard. She got her ears opened up when we stuck around to hear a Suhler set that opened with a cover of "Are You Experienced?" on wah-wah dobro and continued with the pacing of a revue. Kirby Kelley played slide, Mike Morgan and Alan Haynes took turns going toe-to-toe with Suhler, their improvisational flights taking off into Butterfield/Allman Brothers territory at times. "Now that's the way you do it," I told her.

I had the same reaction on my first hearing of this new shiny silver disc, recorded a block from where I used to live in Oak Cliff at my pick for the best listening room in the Metromess since the demise of Fort Worth's late, lamented Caravan of Dreams. With able support from a solid rhythm section (Christopher Alexander on bass and Beau Chadwell on drums) and the versatile Shawn Phares on keys and accordion, Suhler leads Monkey Beat through an all-original set that includes blues-drenched rock ("Panther Burn") and down-and-dirty boogie ("Tijuana Bible"), flavored with a soupcon of Louisiana spice ("Deja Blue") and a pinch of self-deprecating humor ("Doing the Best I Can," which includes the repeated refrain, "I can't play like B.B. King / When I try, I break a string").

Suhler's an appealing singer with a roadworthy rocker's voice, and his slash-and-burn slide guitar is a signature strength. On the tough, taut shuffle "Scattergun," he manages to conjure the spirits of both Johnny Winter and Duane Allman, while the closing tour de force "Restless Soul" includes a snippet of Rory Gallagher's trademark "Bullfrog Blues." Some surprises: On "Across the Brazos," Monkey Beat skirts Little Feat territory, while on "Sunday Drunk," Suhler cuts loose with a soaring, swooping modal breakdown, buoyed by Phares' rockin' piano. This is the kind of music that's best heard where you can feel your clothes being moved around by the air from drum heads and speaker cones, but Eric Scortia's mobile recording puts you right in the middle of the action. Dig it!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Jeff Beck's "Loud Hailer"

Realizing that all such statements are inherently wrong, I still think Jeff Beck is the greatest electric guitarist in the world. He's been my favorite ever since I first heard The Yardbirds' Greatest Hits when I was 13 and had my synapses scorched by the insane one-string "raga" solo on "Shapes of Things" and the even more demented choke-strummed climax of "I'm A Man." His Truth album made an even bigger impression (heavier), and he was part (along with Hendrix and Johnny Winter) of the trinity of axe-slingers I worshiped as a terrible tyro trying to figure out how to light up them strings.

I bought three of his LPs when they were brand new: the "orange" Jeff Beck Group album, which initially puzzled me with its Motown homages and melodic instrumentals but in the fullness, wound up being my favorite (and an important signpost); Beck Bogert & Appice, which teamed him with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, reducing him to the level of a Long Island bar band muso; and Blow By Blow, which made my teenage guitar mentor and me think we needed to learn how to play good. We were wrong, of course, but Sir George Martin, creative listener that he was, correctly discerned that Beck's forte was as a melodist, rather than a heavy riff-rocker or chops-mongering fusioneer, and in so doing, gave him the basis for a career.

Once he got past the ignominy of being upstaged by lead singers and having his original heavy blooze shtick stolen by his pal Jimmy Page's more famous band, Jeff reinvented himself as a true virtuoso. Now he's a man, wa-a-ay past 21, and he's had 50 years to continually hone his technique until today, he's like a Zen master: every note is lovingly played with bare fingers and tweaked with impeccably controlled harmonics, hand vibrato, whammy bar, distortion, and feedback. As I've often said, Hendrix changed the world, but Beck lived long enough to fulfill his potential. For guitarists especially, this makes his live DVDs even more essential than his rekkids, so we can re-run them endlessly while trying to figure out exactly How He Does That. But he's got a new album, and it's both good and different than what you might have been expecting.

On his last album, 2010's Emotion and Commotion, Beck applied his mojo to material that included an aria from Italian opera as well as "Over the Rainbow," but fully half of the tracks featured cameos by female singers, most notably Joss Stone, who'd guested on his live-at-Ronnie-Scott's DVD, and Imelda May, whose band backed Beck on his Les Paul tribute project. Beck had previously featured female musos prominently in his band, including ex-Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten and bassists Tal Wilkenfeld and Rhonda Smith. And pragmatically, after he backed Kelly Clarkson on American Idol, it couldn't have escaped his attention that more people like female vocalists than guitar instrumentals.

So on his new one, Loud Hailer, the sound is built around singer Rosie Bones and rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg's songs, with Beck's flashy fretwork serving as the clarion call to pull people's coats to Bones' political lyrics. It's a smart move for a moment when both the US and UK are in political turmoil. While Beck's endlessly inventive guitar growls like a junkyard dog, shrieks like a banshee, and buzzes like a high-tech hornet, Bones sings the blues for this age of rampant inequality, seething anger, and daily violence. The result is a showcase for Beck's chops that people who aren't already fans might actually want to listen to. (A friend told me that the "classic rock" station in Dallas was playing the first single, "Live in the Dark," every hour one day. How weird is that?) It ain't Truth, but thank Ceiling Cat, it's not trying to be.

A few highlights: Bones' anti-1% screed, "Thugs Club," with backing that shifts from boogie blues to bolero; the gentle, Axis: Bold As Love-like "Scared for the Children;" "Right Now," a late-capitalist anthem ("All we need is something new") featuring the rudest noises Beck's made since "You Shook Me" way back on Truth (and that's saying a hell of a lot); the agile funk of "Oil" (a paean to evabody's favorite addiction); and the hopeful valedictory "Shrine" (for my money, Bones' finest moment here). With Loud Hailer, Beck's succeeded in integrating his distinctive sound into a contemporary setting that sounds fresh, not forced or faked. While old fans might crab (and they will), to these feedback-scorched ears, it's an approach preferable to putting it in park or trying to rehash past glories.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Things we like: Braxton/Stockhausen, Mary Halvorson

1) My recent immersion in Braxtonia has led inexorably back to his classical inspiration, Karlheinz Stockhausen. It's not just that there seem to be direct analogs for so many Stockhausen compositions in Brax's oeuvre: Composition No. 95 (For Two Pianos) = Mantra, Composition No. 82 (For Four Orchestras) = Gruppen, the Trillium opera cycle = the Licht opera cycle, etc. Or the fact that both men have highly idiosyncratic ways of thinking about music and the world. As daunting as it can be to read descriptions of their methodologies, their music offers rewards even to listeners who don't "understand" it. I've got a lot of listening to do before I'm ready (if ever) to write about Stockhausen. For now, I'll just say that Momente, with its varied tonal palette (soprano soloist with chorus that FZ enthusiasts will relate to 200 Motels, brass ensemble, and electric organs that seem to predict both Pink Floyd and electric Miles), is the most fully realized of his works I've heard to date.

2) I've been wanting to hear more of the guitarist Mary Halvorson after being impressed by her on a few other people's recs (her former Wesleyan prof Anthony Braxton, the drummers Ches Smith and Tom Rainey) and a track on Elliott Sharpe's first I Never Metaguitar comp. (She's currently on tour in Europe with Marc Ribot's TSOP homage, the Young Philadelphians.)

The best interview with her I've read includes this quote: "I do think a lot about clarity, and I like the idea of being in control of the instrument. So if I place a totally smeared, flabby-sounding line, I want that to be on purpose, not because I couldn’t execute something. It’s not like I have one hundred percent control, but I try to make those decisions purposeful." You can really hear that on her solo album Meltframe, released last year on Firehouse 12 (her label since 2008's Dragon's Head). The material -- which she road tested, opening for Melvins frontman King Buzzo on his solo tour, before recording -- is all composed by other people; I need to hear some of her own stuff, too. But the live-solo-guitar format provides the best opportunity to hear her approach I've encountered yet.

Halvorson's take on Oliver Nelson's "Cascades" combines precise articulation with nasty (ProCo Rat) distorted sound in the same way as classic Fripp or McLaughlin. On Ornette's "Sadness" (a fave of mine from his Town Hall Concert LP), what sounds at first like the guitar being detuned is actually a slide employed "over the top" on the bottom two strings; later in the piece, you can hear it rattling on the frets. Atypically for a "jazz" guitarist, Halvorson isn't shy about using pedals. On ballads like Duke Ellington's "Solitude" or Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino," she bathes her sound in shimmering tremolo, and she uses her Line 6 delay to create off-kilter pitch-shifter effects. Her base tone, though, comes from the combination of her big archtop Guild Artist Award's natural resonance, a warm amp tone, and an aggressive right hand attack. I only wish she'd included her version of Monk's "Ruby My Dear," perhaps my favorite jazz tune of all ti-i-ime, which she's apparently played solo live.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Things we like: Michael Herr, Laurence Gonzales, Shawn James

Since the writer Michael Herr (1940-2016) passed a few days ago, I've re-read his 1977 Vietnam memoir Dispatches -- maybe the best book to come out of that cataclysm, with an episodic narrative style that sucks you in like a fever dream -- and realized how many phrases of his Namspeak ("Tits on a bull," "I've been scaled and now I'm smooth") have made their way into my vocabulary without my realizing it. Only Dylan has been more subliminally influential on my spiel. Because of Herr's involvement in films (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket), his voice has seeped into our collective unconscious in the same way. His greatness as a writer was in realizing that "war stories" are just stories about people, and in bearing true witness for the ordinary soldiers he met during his time in country.

The novel I'm re-reading now -- Laurence Gonzales' Jambeaux, a fictitious rockaroll saga pubbed a couple of years later, in 1979 -- is unimaginable without that voice (sincerest form of flattery). Its main characters, the musos Page and Link, are Nam vets who speak the same language as Herr's grunts, but find themselves in the rockaroll wars on the Gulf Coast in the mid-'70s. It's redolent of a time when The Music Biz was still a thing, and as such, it's kind of a period piece now, but it actually does a good job of detailing why the Big Buck/Big Record/Big Show model was unsustainable. Gonzales' characters are all archetypes, but he's good on process, whether it's playing a show, flying a plane, making a record, or taking a fix, and it's that gift for description that makes Jambeaux feel authentic.

Shawn James' voice reminds me of the way I imagine Page's might: it stings like the bite of tobacco smoke in your eyes, or straight whiskey on your palate. James hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and fronts a band called the Shapeshifters whom I haven't heard, but on his solo album On the Shoulders of Giants, recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, he reimagines Delta blues -- the kind Son House, Bukka White, and Charlie Patton played -- as a kind of minimalist doom metal. James sings as though from the bottoms of his feet, roaring his masculinity like an illegitimate son of House (whose ghost is most present here on the closing acapella "Preacher Foretold"), or at least a second cousin of Paul Rodgers, creating an atmosphere replete with the heavy funk of sex, swamp water, and Spanish moss hanging from ancient trees. Somehow, with just voice, resophonic guitar, kick drum and tambourine, he manages to achieve something seldom heard: a genuinely heavy acoustic music. Sure, he's a one-man band, but unlike most of his contemporaries who work in that format, he doesn't play it even partly for laughs. Rather, the sound carries the same sense of dread and menace as the original Delta blues: music to chase down demons by.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nick Didkovsky's "Pretties For You Live in NYC" DVD

As I wrote here awhile back, this show took place a couple of weeks after I missed the opportunity to see a set by the original Alice Cooper band (with a ringer in for the late Glen Buxton) at what was supposed to be a Dennis Dunaway book signing at Good Records in Dallas. NYC composer-guitarist-software programmer Nick Didkovsky, mastermind behind the $100 Guitar Project, had assembled a band to play Alice Cooper's underappreciated debut album Pretties For You in its entahrty. I'd been listening to that record (which predated my AC fandom by a couple of years) since Big Mike Richardson presented me with a copy a few months before, so my interest was piqued. When I heard the show was available on DVD, I rushed to order a copy, and it arrived in my mailbox today. (You can get one here.)

Didkovsky's work ranges from metal to experimental music to state-of-the-art music software programming, but for the Pretties For You project, he concentrated on learning and playing Glen Buxton's lead guitar parts. Michael Bruce's parts were split between guitarist Nick Oddy and keyboardist-vocalist Adam Minkoff. The rhythm section was the father and son team of drummer Glenn Johnson (a Detroit expat who gigs relentlessly with New Jersey rock and blues bands) and bassist Max Johnson (who's made waves on the NYC jazz scene), while lead vocals were handled by Paul Bertolino, who fronts the Ezrin-era AC tribute band My Stars. The PFY project benefited from the involvement and support of original Cooper band members Dunaway and Neal Smith, who helped decipher lyrics and provided advice on the AC band's equipment.

Both AC alumni were present for the performance, which capped a week-long Didkovsky residency at John Zorn's club The Stone. It's a small room, and the three-camera shoot gives the DVD a jam-room intimacy. While PFY was critically dismissed and generally ignored at the time of its release -- the band's theatrical image giving some the false impression that they couldn't play -- the song structures are complex and demanding, almost progressive, and it's a pleasure to watch Didkovsky and company tear into them with joyful abandon. Bertolino has the look of Love It To Death-era Alice down, and he and Minkoff blend their voices perfectly. Glenn Johnson's powerhouse drumming is a particular delight, but really, everyone is stupendous.

For old AC fans, the biggest treat comes at the end of the set, when Dunaway joins the band onstage, singing "Nobody Likes Me" -- an early AC number that was performed at the 1969 Toronto Rock & Roll Revival and subsequently bootlegged -- and strapping on the bass for "You Drive Me Nervous" from Killer. Bonus materials include soundcheck versions of several of the tunes, and an encore version of another Killer track, "Halo of Flies." PFY Live in NYC is a great example of rock as repertory, bringing a neglected album to life with a stunning, spirited performance that elevates the material with crackling energy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Richie Duvall and Dog Truck

(Photos stolen from eBay. Click on images to make 'em big.)

When people of A Certain Age say "Long Island rockaroll," you might think of the Young Rascals (who were from Jersey) wowing 'em with their Italo-American soul at the Barge in Westhampton Beach in '65, or the Vagrants (from Queens) making with the feedback and auto-destruction at the Northport Roller Rink in '66. Or the Vanilla Fudge, genuine Guylanders, who started out as Rascals simulacra and wound up developing a brand of heavy psychedelia that influenced Brits like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin early on. (They also played at my high school, before I was old enough to go. The next town over got the Rascals. Wha-wha.)

Fans of a more obscurantist bent might recall the Illusion -- who came out in '69 looking like the '67 ruffles-and-spangles edition of the Who, and had a national hit with "Did You See Her Eyes" -- or the Good Rats, local faves who remained active, with ever-younger family members in the lineup, until baseball bat-wielding frontman Peppi Marchello's death in 2013. (I've been amazed to find Illusion and Good Rats records in used bins in Texas.) A bit later, there were the glammier Twisted Sister ("They're No Ladies, Mister") and Zebra, as well as Genesis cover band Rat Race Choir, a couple of whose members I saw playing with John Entwistle in the late '90s.

Richie Duvall and Dog Truck -- whom I've mentioned previously in another post -- never achieved the notoriety of any of the other bands I've mentioned. But their self-titled, self-released, "non-profit record," recorded in 1973, while the principals were in high school -- has become a favorite spin of mine in my "deep listening space" o' the moment (e.g., my car). Their "half poly-precipitated jazz and half post-meditation rock," as the hand-drawn cover announces, reminds me of the moment when "jazz rock" meant something other than mere chops and exhibitionism -- and when cats a couple of years older than me (who were my biggest musical inspirations) were pulling my coat to noises more challenging than Brit invaders and blooze imitators.

Ken Duvall, Rich's brother who plays guitar on the Dog Truck album, was a guy I became aware of via Carl Johnson, the guy who first inspahrd me to want to play in a band when I saw him -- a gnomic figure in leather pants -- explode out of the wings at a middle school dance to sing "Sookie Sookie" in front of a band that was variously known as the Forbidden Past and the Cold Water. They had a "light show" that consisted of an electric fan, covered in colored cellophane with a lamp behind it. Carl had a demented look in his eyes as he shoved his mic in the faces of the girls in front of the stage like it was a dick. (Big Jim Morrison fan. Later, he did a lot of acid and got into Captain Beefheart, about which more later.) I reconnected with him a couple of years ago and learned that the scene I just described was the first time he'd ever sung in public. Another time, I'd see him get pulled off stage for making fun of the gym teacher (who'd once made me run laps until I puked) when he started dancing with one of the girls. Needless to say, Carl was one of my heroes. When he moved from Bellport to Ronkonkoma in the early '70s, he fell in with a claque of musos that included the Duvall brothers and reedman Michael Maldonado.

Ken was something else entahrly. I was kind of in awe of him because he was reputed to have talked to Frank Zappa backstage once, and given him a tape, and auditioned for Captain Beefheart not once, but twice. I learned a Beefheart tune or two off a tape Ken had made with his buddy Bruce Crystal, another badass guitarist who looked a little like Hendrix (you can see his mug on the back of the Dog Truck LP sleeve, for which he did artwork but no playing). My last college roommate, besides schooling me on musical structure (up till then I was mainly into stealing licks off of records), had pulled my coat to Beefheart, spoonfeeding me Trout Mask Replica a track at a time, and very laboriously teaching me how to play "Kandy Korn" (the long Mirror Man version). I was muy impressed by the fact that his band back home could play that song, "Alice In Blunderland," and Zappa's "Orange County Lumber Truck."

When I asked Ken about Zappa and Beefheart a couple of years ago, he was suitably modest. He said he'd heard from a Zappa employee that the three-song demo he gave FZ in '72 wound up getting recorded over ("It was high quality tape"), and the copy of Dog Truck he sent Frank went right in the trash, unheard. Ken played for Beefheart in April of '75, during the Bongo Fury tour, and again in September of that year, after Beefheart had played the Knebworth festival in the UK. "He said he liked my playing, but I did not play very impressively, and I think he may have been lying just to be nice." Still, to my foolish and idolatrous teenage self, he'd been in the presence of gods, and had the cojones to play for 'em, to boot. (I think these stories say a lot about the divergent characters of Zappa and Beefheart. But perhaps I just read too much into things.)

More to the point, Ken and Richie Duvall were the kind of musos that scared the bejeezus out of me and my autodidact, blues-aping cohort. They could read music, and write charts. Kind of like the cats in the "Jazz Rock Ensemble" at our high school, but these guys were doing their own thing. On the Dog Truck record, Richie played drums, keys, alto sax, and bass, wrote all but two of the songs (he collaborated with bassist Bob Couillard on "Child's Play"), and sang the album's one vocal, on Ken's "Moons Never Spool." What keeps me coming back to Richie Duvall and Dog Truck is the way every one of the songs -- some of which feature multiple shifts of mood and tricky tempo changes -- has melodic or rhythmic bits that have insinuated their way into my consciousness (unlike too many records and shows where, after the fact, I'm left with a general impression of the sound, but no recall of the material).

"Berkeley" opens the proceedings with a moody theme played by the three-horn line (alto-trumpet-trombone) over a loping groove that features three chordal instruments (two guitars and electric piano). Richie's drums propel things nicely, and show a fondness for the kind of tumbling rolls lots of Long Island drummers seemed to like to play. On the modal "Caves," Doug Hunter kicks the traps while trumpeter Jeff Camp plays organ. Guitarist Don Shabner solos pointillistically, in the manner of lots of rock players of the time who were incorporating jazzy melodic ideas and phrasing while retaining a basis in blues.

"Child's Play" opens with a statement from Bob Martines' electric clarinet that employs speech-like rhythms, giving way to a frolicsome shuffle that alternates descending and ascending lines. Schabner's solo has a Martin Barre feel that makes me remember playing Jethro Tull's "Nothing Is Easy" when I was 18 and thinking it was jazz. The droning sustained feedback note behind the second iteration of the shuffle is taken up by the horns for a section in 6/8 that ends, Xenakis-like, in an ascending gliss, leading to a horn dialogue before the final descending run.

"Thank You" starts out with a groove that recalls the bass line from the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown, over which Ken Duvall solos in the manner of FZ circa Uncle Meat, replete with crazy intervallic leaps and idiosyncratic bends, before handing off to his brother on organ. A transitional section in 6/8 leads into a jazz waltz that features a Wayne Shorter-esque clarinet ride from Martines. Turning the record over, "Slap Your Knees" has the album's most "rockist" theme, the guitars playing a modified boogie against syncopated, stabbing organ chords. A hymn-like wash of organ inundates the track like a wave before the shuffle returns, closing with a six-note descending figure that I unconsciously (I swear!) emulated in the B section of a track on a recent recording project.

On the next couple of tunes, Richie plays both bass and drums (through the magic of overdubbing). "Girl At Water Show" has a theme that wouldn't have been out of place on Hot Rats, and features a nice trombone solo by Skip West that recalls both Chicago's James Pankow and FZ's Bruce Fowler. "Sun Tune" has what Ken describes as "that [Free] 'All Right Now' A chord," and a solo which he doesn't dig but I do, in which he endeavors to fill every interstice in the theme. Ken plays piano on "Classical," in between the Bach-like intro by the horns and Don Schabner's solo, which opens with octaves, giving way to bluesy bends and vibrato. Ken also wrote the closing "Moons Never Spool," on which Skip West again solos effectively, before Richie sings the dissonant melody, then solos on alto.

I love this music not only because it takes me back to a time and place, but also because it stands on its own merits, a reminder that local obscurities by developing artists can still provide a satisfying listen. Richie Duvall and Dog Truck is a rare bird; I've seen copies offered online for as little as a ten spot and as much as 40 bucks. Worthwhile if you dig vintage Traffic, Chicago Transit Authority, and Mothers of Invention. Highly recommended, even if you're not from Lawn Guyland.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Braxtonia for beginners (including, um, me)

The scope and rigor of Anthony Braxton's sound world can be intimidating. When I was dipping a toe in jazz back in the mid-'70s, I owned two Braxton LPs: Trio and Duet, a 1973 release on tiny Canadian indie Sackville, and Creative Orchestra Music 1976, which some folks will tell you is the crown jewel of Braxton's "minute" on major label Arista. The former consisted of a side-long piece of Stockhausen-influenced abstraction, replete with Richard Teitelbaum's synthesizer textures (decades before I ever heard the phrase "electroacoustic improvisation"), backed with a side of jazz standards, performed by the multi-reedist on alto, with accompaniment by his former Circle bandmate (and ex-Miles Davis sideman) Dave Holland on bass. The latter was a mixed bag that included everything from near-Ellingtonia to more 20th century Euro-influenced fare to a Sousa-esque march that breaks down into free jazz soloing, including a scream-trumpet-on-acid solo by estimable studio pro Jon Faddis.

In other words, cat was all over the map. In the fullness of time, it's evident that he was using what he reckoned (correctly) would be a limited period of mass-ass exposure opportunity to document as many different aspects of his art as possible. Since then, a career in academia (he retired from Wesleyan University in 2013) has allowed him to pursue his muse without starving, and his more recent output consists of expansive (and pricey) multi-disc sets devoted to single facets, which makes him challenging to collect (as if the massive volume of releases didn't already). This year alone, he's released an opera (four CDs plus a Blu-ray disc), a three-disc box of his "Echo Echo Mirror House" music (more on this below), and a seven-disc box devoted to the works of visionary jazz composer-pianist Lennie Tristano and his associates. A busy guy.

When I got intrigued again, in the wake of Braxton's contemporary and sometime collaborator Henry Threadgill's receipt of a 2016 Pulitzer Prize, it was puzzling to discover that my go-to jazz scribe Gary Giddins had little (in the books of his I own, anyway) to say about Braxton (who's often taken it on the chin from self-appointed arbiters of "jazz authenticity"), while Francis Davis fixated on the impenetrability of the muso's discourse. White critics, Braxton believes, treat African-American creative music as a form of "black exotica," but he views the philosophical/spiritual/ritual underpinnings of his music as part of a continuum that stretches back to ancient Egypt. (Frustrated by critical misinterpretations of his work, Braxton has authored a three-volume treatise, Tri-axium Writings, along with five volumes of Composition Notes. All are available from the composer via Frog Peak Music.)

One way for the interested novice to gain insight into the composer's thought process might be via the interviews Brit journo Graham Lock, who toured the UK with Braxton's quartet in 1985, did for his book Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (currently out of print; excerpts available online here). I had the additional benefit of suggestions from Charles Young (of Phoenix) and Herb Levy (of Fort Worth), and the "Guide to Further Listening" from John Corbett's Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein, which also contains a useful Braxton interview.

Braxton's influences include 20th century classical figures like Cage, Stockhausen, and Schoenberg, as well as jazzmen like Paul Desmond, Warne Marsh, and John Coltrane. Most importantly, he was a product of Chicago's Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians, the musicians' cooperative/community based educational organization that served as a learning laboratory for composers like Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, and mentor/paterfamilias Muhal Richard Abrams, as well as Braxton in the hothouse days of the mid-'60s.

Francis Davis noted that Braxton is a sci-fi and Star Trek nut, unsurprising for a brainiac who talked about composing symphonies for multiple galaxies around the time (late '70s) Arista released his composition for four symphony orchestras. (It's revealing to contrast Braxton's compassion, when interviewed by Lock, for the student musos who recorded his For Four Orchestras -- at a tempo slower than that specified -- with Frank Zappa's contempt, when writing The Real Frank Zappa Book, for the professional orchestras who recorded his music.) Braxton's musical systems include "language music," which started out as a catalog of techniques to be used as prompts for solo instrumental performances; three different types of "repetition structures," which he dubbed "Kelvin" ("phrase generating structures"), "Cobalt" ("sound blocks") and "Kaufman" ("multiple relationships"); and "collage" approaches, where instrumental parts are interchangeable and musos have the option of playing a different composition against the "primary territory." Collage pieces also include the use of "pulse tracks," in which instruments alternate improvisation and notated material for short, shifting durations. The net effect can be akin to Charles Ives' simulation (in Three Places in New England) of two marching bands being heard simultaneously -- or the effect I experienced walking between two barracks in Korea, where one was playing Grandmaster Flash and the other was playing Journey.

The collage approach was perfected by the quartet with Marilyn Crispell on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, and Gerry Hemingway on drums that existed for about a decade ('83-'93), during which the musos acquired a high degree of familiarity with Braxton's methods and repertoire. Comparisons between this group and the "classic" Coleman and Coltrane quartets sell the Braxton unit short, as this group was blending improvisation with a high percentage of notated material on the fly, and making it sound seamless. The half-live, half-studio 4CD HatART box Willisau (Quartet) 1991 is probably their definitive document, but as it retails for a couple of hundred bucks, I chose to settle for Quartet (Birmingham) 1985, one of three double CDs on Leo Records that were recorded during the '85 UK tour chronicled in Graham Lock's book. (The London concert was recorded by the BBC, Birmingham and Coventry by a fan. The released version of Coventry includes lengthy excerpts from Lock's interviews with Braxton along with the music. Lock characterized London as "coolly intense," Birmingham as "visceral and sweaty," Coventry as "historic" -- informed by Braxton's decision, subsequently reversed, to disband the quartet at the end of the tour. )

Braxton's at work on a cycle of 12 operas, Trillium, three of which have been performed and recorded so far (Trillium J was released this year), and which he envisions as part of a 12-day "festival for world dynamics." His latter-day methodologies include "Diamond Curtain Wall Music," which integrates improvisation with computer-generated electronic patches; the aforementioned "Echo Echo Mirror House," which besides having a Monty Pythonesque name, requires musos to manipulate iPods as well as instruments to combine live performance with sampled sounds from Braxton's discography; "Falling River Music," which combines colorful graphic scores with vague instructions; "Ghost Trance Music," a body of work that was his main focus between 1995 and 2006, characterized by staccato unison melodies, additional scored material that can be interjected at the player's discretion, and suggestions of other Braxton compositions to be incorporated in the piece; and "Zim Music," which integrates graphic and traditional scores in the same way as "Falling River Music," adding an element of group play with volume.

Released on Delmark -- the Chicago label that also released Braxton's debut Three Compositions of New Jazz and his groundbreaking solo recital For Alto -- Four Compositions (GTM) 2000 provides an easy access point to the "Ghost Trance Music" for listeners approaching from the jazz side. The quartet format used here allows more improvisation than a larger unit would. While none of the musos (former students) who accompany the composer have as strong personalities as their counterparts in the 1985 unit, their multi-instrumentalism (like Braxton's) provides textural variety. Their improvs (or are they contrasting notated parts?) swirl around the fixed parts of the form like water around stones.

He also continues to explore the jazz tradition. A precursor to this year's release Quartet (Tristano) 2014, Eight (+1) Tristano Compositions 1989 For Warne Marsh pays tribute to the West Coast figure whose rigorous music was almost as misunderstood in its day as Braxton's has been, and his saxophone accomplice who became Braxton's second role model after Paul Desmond. (But guys from Chicago aren't allowed to admire West Coast white guys, say the jazz police. Oh well.) For Warne Marsh has a bright, lustrous sound unheard on a jazz record since, I dunno, Arthur Blythe's In the Tradition -- only not as shrill as that one; you can hear Cecil McBee's bass just fine here, as he locks in with Andrew Cyrille's drums and Dred Scott (a Braxton discovery)'s piano. Jon Raskin (ROVA Saxophone Quartet)'s baritone provides a contrasting solo voice to Braxton's alto and sopranino as they careen wildly through Tristano's circuitous melodies at warp speed. In the middle of all this is the (+1) of the title: a reading of Marsh's "Sax of a Kind" that serves as a tranquil island of sublime grace amid all the velocity. (Braxton would probably hate that description. Oh well.)

Perhaps I'll provide further communiques as I descend farther down the rabbit hole. (Right now, I'm stalking For Four Orchestras online.) Onward and, um, downward...