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 Threadgill, 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...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Like hearing with new ears: Ataraxia at the Grackle Art Gallery, 5.14.2016

"We're Ataraxia," said the musician and visual artist Dennis Gonzalez at the end of his new trio's performance, their second-ever public outing, at Fort Worth's Grackle Art Gallery last night. The occasion was the opening of "The Enigma of Divination," a show of Gonzalez's works on paper that runs through May 28. A quick google search revealed that Merriam-Webster defines "ataraxia" as "calmness untroubled by mental or emotional disquiet," which makes it the perfect appellation for the unit, which was formed on the quick when Gonzalez had a date to play at the Benbrook Public Library's "Music Monday," and scheduling conflicts prevented Yells At Eels, Gonzalez's regular trio with his sons on bass and drums, from making the gig. Unlike YAE, a unit whose intensity is informed by Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez's love for punk and metal as well as free jazz, Ataraxia's music is quiet enough for them to be able to play in a residential neighborhood like the one where the Grackle is located without generating noise complaints.

Ataraxia occupies the same sacred and ritual space as YAE does in its quieter moments, and the setting, surrounded by Gonzalez's artwork, replete with magical and dreamlike images ("I have no idea what they mean," he maintains), was conducive to contemplative listening. (Perhaps a space that's not lit for an art exhibition might be even more so; a thought for next time.) The set began ceremonially, with the sound of gongs, bells, and small instruments, before bassist Drew Phelps -- fresh from a country gig with Ginny Mac at Fred's Texas Cafe -- started the opening tune, "Namesake," which Gonzalez originally recorded in 1987, during a period when he was performing and recording with the cream of the American and European jazz avant-gardes. Sri Lankan percussionist Jagath Lakpriya picked up the rhythm on tabla, propelling the music forward with a light but certain touch. Gonzalez's trumpet was run through a couple of electronic effects, including a harmonizer, that gave his sound dimension and depth. One advantage of this format is how it throws the physicality of music making into more brilliant relief, accentuating the nuances of sound production.

The trio paid tribute to David Bowie with a straightforward reading of the A section from "Black Star," the title track from the iconic rocker's final album. They continued with a Phelps original, "Boink," that Gonzalez said was in 31/8 time but proved to be a muscular groove for the bass and percussion to lock in on, with a tortuous line on which Gonzalez shadowed the composer the way Don Cherry used to shadow Ornette. The next tune* was sung in Spanish by Gonzalez, with wordless vocal counterpoint from Lakpriya. The closing number, Gonzalez's "Hymn for Julius Hemphill," was an appropriate choice for a show in the late reedman-composer's hometown, with Phelps digging in and playing some deep blues that an observer characterized as "gangster." Comparisons between Ataraxia and the jazz-"world music" fusion trio Codona reminded Gonzalez of the time he almost collaborated with Codona tablaist-sitarist Collin Walcott (before that musician's tragic and untimely death in a car accident while touring East Germany in 1984). But the new group's sound is their own, a blank slate, like hearing with new ears. It'll be interesting to find out what directions they follow as their identity develops.

* ADDENDUM: Dennis Gonzalez writes, "The song is called "Herido (Wounded)," first recorded on The Hymn Project CD with Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, with words by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, a Roman Catholic saint, a Carmelite friar and a priest who lived in the late 1500's in Spain."

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Things we like: Paul Butterfield, Orgullo Primitivo, Greg Tate on Hendrix

1) Reading some ign'ant ancestor bashing from a guy that looked like Ayn Rand's idea of a blues guitarist on Facebook sent me back to the bootleg of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band live at Boston's Unicorn Coffee House in '66, due for release June 3 by Real Gone Music as I Got A Mind to Give Up Living.

As I've written elsewhere, the Butter band's influence was significant, transforming folkniks into bluesniks, giving kids who'd only heard blues via Brit Invasion wannabes a taste of something more authentic, and laying the template for the Guitar Hero via Mike Bloomfield's yeoman fretwork. But as producer Paul A. Rothchild admitted in the liner notes to Rhino's belated reissue of The Original Lost Elektra Sessions, it took three tries for erstwhile folkie label Elektra to capture the Butter band's amplified heat on tape (including one version that made it as far as the pressing plant and a failed attempt at cutting them live in a club).

By the time sophomore disc East-West rolled around in '66, they'd figured some of that stuff out, but the band was still much hotter live than in the studio (as the club tapes keyboardist Mark Naftalin released in the '90s as East-West Live attest). From the opening instrumental medley to the familiar songs from the first two LPs to a handful they never got around to recording -- "One More Heartache," the Elvin Bishop-sung "Coming Home Baby," and a couple (Percy Mayfield's "Memory Pain" and Muddy's "Walking By Myself") that I first heard via Johnny Winter's versions -- the Unicorn set cooks with abandon and invention that takes off from where the studio recordings peaked.

Bloomfield particularly shines on Nat Adderley's "Work Song" -- which has a false start and a solo that takes a chorus to get going due to tuning problems, then burns with incandescent fire -- and the title track. Elvin Bishop's solos remind me of the time I saw him wipe the floor with the top-billed Marshall Tucker Band, the same wobbly vibrato audible in his guitar lines as his voice. The confluence of the guitars and Mark Naftalin's organ puts me in mind of my teenage faves the Blues Project. Butter and the Jerome Arnold-Billy Davenport rhythm section are their classic selves.

2) Brothers Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez are deeply rooted in North Texas' heavy/freaky/experimental music community, dating back to the days when they'd host punk and noise shows at their parental home in Oak Cliff. Together, they form the grindcore duo Akkolyte, as well as the rhythm section for free jazz trio Yells At Eels (with their father, trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez) and jazz-rock juggernaut Unconscious Collective (with estimable guitarist Gregg Prickett). Now, Aaron's label Inner Realms/Outer Realms has released Textures of Falling Out, an LP by Stefan's solo project Orgullo Primitivo/Primitive Orgasm.

The words "drum solo" can evoke images of an athletic event or exhibitionistic display, but percussionists like Milford Graves and Han Bennink have proven that such performances can be both musical and expressive. (Ronald Shannon Jackson did it -- and recited Shakespeare -- on Pulse.) Stefan Gonzalez has learned from some of the greatest creative artists in his field -- Alvin Fielder, Famoudou Don Moye, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Tatsuya Nakatani, Jackson -- but always uses his music as a vehicle for catharsis. So his polyrhythmic constructions, on traditional and non-traditional instruments, are accompanied by growled metal vocals that spew bile, vitriol, and spleen through a tightly constricted larynx.

Stefan's a superb technician, but it's the emotion behind the roiling maelstrom of sound he creates that you notice. The net effect is primal, tribal, ecstatic, and cleansing. What's missing from the recorded artifact is the visceral effect of seeing the leather-clad artist slinging sweat as he pummels the living hell out of his percussion array. On the closing "Lords of Lust," Jay Jernigan adds synth flourishes, and you can actually imagine folks at some disco of the damned shaking booty to the resultant groove.

3) Back when I still had a subscription to the Village Voice, Greg Tate -- who went by Gregory "Ironman" Tate back then -- was one of the village voices besides Hentoff and Giddins that I heeded the most. His anthology Flyboy in the Buttermilk, pubbed in the year (1992) I got out of the service, is an essential text as much for his use of language (in which academic jargonese rubs shoulders with hip-hop argot in service of a unique vision of the culcha) as for what he had to say about crucial stuffs like George Clinton, Miles Davis, Don DeLillo, Samuel R. Delany, and much more. He's got a follow-up, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, due out in August, so while I was waiting, I figured I'd check out his 2003 tome Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience.

I always say Jimi was The Water I Grew Up Swimming In; when he died, my mom came and picked me up from middle school to give me the news. It took me years to even comprehend that all the sounds on Are You Experienced? or his Woodstock "Star Spangled Banner" (in the original movie, he appeared as a giant head; I had to wait for his full set to make it to DVD some 30 odd years later to see what he was really up to) were guitar. His Monterey "Like A Rolling Stone" and the Royal Albert Hall versions of "Little Wing" and "Voodoo Child" from a quasi-legit Brit soundtrack called More Experience were the first recorded artifacts I heard that enabled me to begin to wrap my head around his genius -- an investigation that's ongoing, 40-plus years later (interrupted for about a decade after college, where I met too many people who'd fucked themselves up on acid in an attempt to "be like Jimi," including one cat that had all the same equipment and could make all the space noises but couldn't play a lick of music).

Sure, the story's been told innumerable times before. For my money, the best Hendrix tomes remain David Henderson's, which was first with the mostest, even though a lot of it was cribbed from the October 1975 Hendrix issue of Guitar Player that my last college roommate and I studied more diligently than we did any of our assigned texts, and Charles Shaar Murray's, which contextualizes Jimi nearly every way you can think of. Except one.

Tate looks at Jimi as a black man, from a black perspective, and it's more poetic and spiritual than I'd have expected from Greg when he was young and still overflowing with the critical theory they taught him at Howard. He also draws liberally on the testimony of Hendrix familiars the Allen twins aka the Ghetto Fighters (previously heard from in the '73 Joe Boyd doco), NYC guitarist Ronnie Drayton, Xenobia Bailey (who places Jimi in the context of Seattle's black community, an underexplored aspect of his bio), record producer Craig Street, and astrologer Stefanie Kelly (because, well, why the hell not?). A quick read, an essential additional addition to the canon, and all the excuse I needed to spin Band of Gypsys and Axis: Bold As Love yet again.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Things we like: Herbie Hancock, Tanzer Trauer, "Miles Ahead," Karate

1) Herbie Hancock's Possibilities. This autobiography, co-written with Lisa Dickey, was pubbed in 2014, but I only stumbled on it at the library a couple of weeks ago. It's a worthwhile read. A couple of Herbie's yarns about things he learned from Miles are worth the price of admission all by themselves, but there's more. He's a pretty self-aware and humble cat (I suspect his Buddhist practice helps), and he writes pretty forthrightly about his own weaknesses (including coke and crack use), as well as providing interesting insight into his engineer's (and early adopter's) head and the twists and turns of his ever-more-mainstream career. (He started writing hits early on; "Watermelon Man" paid for the Mwandishi band. Speaking of which, this whets my appetite to read Bob Gluck's You'll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band.) His descriptions of early synth technology prepared me for...

2) Tanzer Trauer, aka "The Artist Formerly Known As Zeitmorder." In other words: Jon Teague of Pinkish Black fame, performing acts of ancestor worship (Cluster and Eno, Jon's Yeti bandmate/mentor Doug Ferguson) on obsolete technology (his battery of modular synths). It went down at the 1912 Club on Hemphill on Earth Day. I remember the first Earth Day, in 1970: I wasn't allowed to bag school the way my best buddy was (he'd also gotten to do it for the Vietnam Moratorium the year before), so I had to wait till after school to go to the church where it was going down in my town, where I watched a kid paint a sign that said "Anti-Pollution Now!" (Years later, another buddy and I would email each other "Anti-Unemployment Now!" when we were both out of work.) But I digress. Hopefully Jon will do more of this when he's not touring.

3) Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead. I was dubious about this based on the car chase scenes and gunplay in the trailer, but I needn't have worried. Caught a Sunday afternoon showing at the Modern Art Museum here (the docent informed us that the noon showing is the one to catch -- half price!) and overall, I'd have to say it's the best flick of its kind (biopic of muso I dig) that I've seen. Sure, it cuts corners the way movies always do, but it felt like all the choices Cheadle made served the story and honored the character. Without shying away from the complexities (e.g., the protagonist's relationships with women), it managed not to make me hate Miles' misogynist guts the way the Quincy Troupe book did. And Miles' music was integrated into the story as well as I've ever seen it done -- you can follow the trajectory of the character's emotions by listening to the soundtrack. At no time did I feel like I, as a viewer, was being manipulated or sold short. And without giving anything away, the ending contained some nice non-plot surprises. If Cheadle doesn't win at least one Oscar for this, to hell with the Academy. Also: The Modern's showing Purple Rain at 10pm on Friday, May 13th.

4) Karate's Some Boots. Jamie Shipman, whom I've netbuds with for years and who plays bass in Heater, whom I need to see, pulled my coat to this, which sounds like a cross between Tame Tame and Quiet and, um, Rory Gallagher...bluesy alt-rock? Geoff Farina was part of Lawnmower, a free-jazz outfit whose Clean Feed album of a few years ago I liked real much. With this trio, Farina writes sharp lyrics and sings 'em in a voice not unlike Donald Fagen's, with occasional nods to Van-Morrison-via-Phil-Lynott in his phrasing. On guitar, he has a beautiful clean Fender tone that's infused with the Otis Rush/early Buddy Guy blues fundamental that I love. When he kicks on the fuzz and wah, it's harmonic-rich heaven, and he's not above fucking things up with the whammy bar (or electronic simulacrum). When he pushes the harmonics past the brink of feedback on "In Hundreds," he even gets into Andy Gill territory. His mates on bass and drums ain't no slouches, either. I've got this in the car and I could be listening to it for awhile. It's thrilling to me that music like this existed in 2002.