Thursday, February 09, 2012


Two weeks after finishing George Lewis' AACM history, I'm in possession of a new stereo receiver and CD player courtesy of my drummer from college (bless him), replacing the compact stereo he sent me 15 years ago -- when he couldn't stand the thought of me using my computer as a CD player -- which went tits up last week. It's been 20 years since I had access to a "real" stereo, and my sweetie 'n' I are going through all of our music, discovering what it _really_ sounds like. Even CDs sound better, with loads more depth and headroom, but I'm getting back into the habit of listening to LPs a side at a time, the way I did when I was young and it might take me six months to get to side two of a favorite record.

Investigating the AACM's discography, I find myself unenthused by the couple of albums of Muhal Richard Abrams I've heard (Levels and Degrees of Light and Things To Come From Those Now Gone -- great titles, anyway), as important a role as he played as mentor and preceptor for younger cats like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill. (At least now I think I know where Johnny Case got the inspiration for the operatic vocals on his Love's Bitter Rage.) I need to stalk the Black Saint-heavy CD stacks at Recycled in Denton for his Sightsong (duets with bassist Malachi Favors) and the big band albums Blu Blu Blu and Hearinga Suite (highly rated by Gary Giddins, but omitted from Lewis' select discography, probably because there weren't a lot of AACM members on board).

I'll have to set aside some time in the future to investigate Threadgill's work on its own. Threadgill made his recording debut on Abrams' Young at Heart/Wise in Time. Back in the '70s, I dug his band Air on their album Air Lore (modernist reimaginings of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton from around the same time Braxton and Gil Evans were revisiting their work), and for the estimable Fred Hopkins-Steve McCall riddim section. I'm quite enamored of the bluesy You Know the Number and Too Much Sugar For a Dime, with its dense contrapuntal thickets and contrasting textures -- like Prime Time's dancing polyphony, only through-composed. (T. Horn is a fan of Harriet Tubman, the band Too Much Sugar guitarist Brandon Ross plays in with Melvin Gibbs of Decoding Society fame.) Threadgill's currently three albums into his current band concept, Zooid; I need to catch up.

Braxton's discography is large enough to be daunting, so I've chosen to only delve into a couple of albums I owned back in the '70s, and a couple of earlier ones that seem to have left the biggest footprints. Listening to his (and Mitchell's) work, it's instructive to note that there were "jazz cats" back in the '60s who were hip to and influenced by Stockhausen, Cage, and Feldman as well as Bird, Ornette, and Dolphy. (Not news to some, but I was a dumbass rockarolla when I first heard this music.)

Creative Orchestra Music 1976 is best known for its Ellington and Sousa-referential pieces, but I've been listening more to the other side, which is equally reflective of European art music and jazz traditions. Similarly, back in the '70s, I preferred the side of Trio and Duet where Braxton played jazz standards with his Circle bandmate/Conference of the Birds leader Dave Holland to the one where he essayed a longer, more challenging piece with Leo Smith (whose Golden Quartet with Ronald Shannon Jackson I've dug more recently) on trumpet and Richard Teitelbaum (ex-Musica Electronica Viva) on electronics; now, with three years of HIO under my belt, I've flip-flopped.

Early on, at least, there were strong similarities in the work of Braxton and Mitchell (highly competitive with each other back then, Lewis notes): their mix of rigor and humor; their use of silence and space as compositional devices; their exploration of their instruments' timbral qualities, including "unmusical" sounds; their employment of "small instruments" (harmonicas, kazoos, a plethora of percussion). Both men's first recordings appeared on Delmark Records, the imprint of Jazz Record Mart proprietor and Uber blues fan Bob Koester -- mentor to Howard Mandel and Wes Race, among others, who released two crucial '60s Chicago blues documents (Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues and Magic Sam's West Side Soul) and, one gets the impression, was arm-twisted into recording the AACM musicians by his employee and free-jazz aficionado Chuck Nessa.

Braxton's Three Compositions of New Jazz was a sort of jazz chamber music, played by an ensemble of multi-instrumentalists without a kit drummer (although Braxton performs on snare) but including Leroy Jenkins' violin. The CD edition bears this curiously backhanded liner note (Koester's?): "In retrospect [Braxton] was a much more developed and confident musician than he may have seemed at the time." The follow-up, For Alto, was an audacious move: two LPs' worth of home-recorded solo saxophone improvisations. Mitchell's Sound opened with a dedication to Ornette before undertaking a thorough exploration of the open fields of tonality and meter Coleman had proposed with "Beauty is a Rare Thing." (Drummer Alvin Fielder had played in Sun Ra's Arkestra, and more recently has performed and recorded with Dennis Gonzalez.)

Nessa went on to release works by Mitchell (Congliptious, Old/Quartet) and trumpeter Lester Bowie (Numbers 1 & 2) -- the genesis of a unit that would become the Art Ensemble of Chicago during their 1969-71 sojourn in Europe -- on his own, eponymous label. Those albums were out of print for years until 1993, when a revived Nessa label re-released them in a pricey five-CD box that also included a lot of bonus material. In the last couple of years, he's reissued them again in more affordable, still bonus-heavy stand-alone editions.

Of these, the most essential is probably Congliptious, which opens with unaccompanied solo statements by Favors, Mitchell, and Bowie (the oft-quoted "Jazz Death?" -- Q: "Is jazz, as we know it, dead?" A: "Well, that all depends on what you know"), followed by ensemble pieces which, while still showing Ornette's influence, also begin to display the whisper-to-scream dynamic range that would become the Art Ensemble's calling card. That band achieved its apotheosis in France with albums like People In Sorrow (1969) and Les Stances a Sophie (1970) -- the former originally released on Nessa in the U.S., both currently available on a single French EMI CD, Americans Swinging in Paris. Nessa also released (and more recenlty reissued, in expanded form) Mitchell's masterwork, the 1977 double LP Nonaah, about which more later.


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