Reviews of Recent Recordings
Anthony Braxton + Anne Rhodes
Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet + 1
Conventional wisdom tells us the larger the group, the more important it is to have a strong leader in charge to avoid the perils of chaos. But scientists now suggest that chaos is as orderly in its own fashion as any more recognizable system, and anyway, isn’t “conventional wisdom” beginning to sound like an oxymoron in this day and age? Take the PBCT, for example. Since its inception in 1997, Brötzmann’s name has been on the marquee, but while he may be the center of gravity and, equally, the centripetal force that gives the band its primary inspiration, it is the centrifugal force exerted by the other members of the band, individually and collectively, that provides its identity. Previous releases on the okka disk label have shown how varying compositional tactics devised by Ken Vandermark, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Mats Gustafsson, Jeb Bishop, and Michael Zerang (among current members) have broadened and challenged its conceptual and improvisational range. Even though since 2005 the band has concentrated on group improvisation, there’s a dramatic sweep and sense of organization audible in their three untitled, extended live performances from 2009 included in the 5-CD 3 Nights In Oslo which reveal how they have internalized compositional strategies and use them to spontaneously generate ensemble structures.
The nearly hour-long piece that fills the first of these five discs begins with jolting, jostling group activity – a push/pull of kinetic energy that results in a sense of motion (not movement, which implies progress toward a specific goal) impelled from within the ensemble. Details emerge; related motifs, common tones, reactive counterpoint. Over time, the volume drops and episodes are shaped, featuring conversations between mix-and-match groupings: two saxophones, tuba, and drums; muted trombone and clarinets; a horn choir. The second, half-hour long, piece finds the ensemble tumult disrupted by shifts in color and texture – a trombone soliloquy gradually joined by squawking electronics, brief solos supported by detonated riffs and a roiling rhythm section (Kent Kessler’s piston-like bass is a major unifying factor). The third, half as long, morphs from string scrapes to a restrained ensemble melee that leads to an unavoidable eruption, and ends with a gritty tenor saxophone lamentation. All three contain moments of extreme turbulence and commotion, which may be exhilarating or exasperating according to taste, but are tempered with mutable dynamics, coherent design, and fanciful detail.
The remaining three discs allow the band to break down into smaller, more intimate improv units. Michael Zerang’s and Paal Nilssen-Love’s drum colloquy (sorry, but I flash back to “Toad” and “Moby Dick”) shares a disc with the raucous, razor’s edge reed trio Sonore (Brötzmann, Vandermark, and Gustafsson) and the growl-and-grumble chatterbox duo of trombonist Johannes Bauer and tubaist Per Åke Holmlander. The pairing of Joe McPhee’s and Vandermark’s tenor saxophones takes a more lyrical tack than Sonore; lightning occasionally strikes, but they close with a spiritual. Trombonist Jeb Bishop is quick-wristed and sly in his meeting with Nilssen-Love, who matches the tonal nuances of Bishop’s mutes with subtle stick and brush work. Fred Lonberg-Holm is the wild card in Survival Unit III, raising the ante with cello drones and abrupt slashes or a firestorm of electronics, confronting Zerang’s metallic clatter and McPhee’s forceful wail and anthemic lines. Finally, the brass en masse (Bauer, Bishop, Holmlander, and McPhee) discover complementary intersecting phrases, exploit buzzing and chortling voices, and blend into one mournful interlude worthy of Mahler.
Three nights of music is a lot to digest, and as in any concert there are peaks and valleys. But this is a special ensemble; their uniqueness comes from the combination of shared experience, individual personalities, and stylistic empathy. And, to their credit, there is plenty of evidence here that they are still changing, still growing.
Joost Buis & Astronotes
Trombonist Joost Buis and his ten-piece Dutch big band certainly do have fun when they play. This good-humored disc tickles your funny bone, plays games with your expectations, plays fast and loose with jazz tradition, and thoroughly enjoys its mischief with high spirits. Right from the opener, “Ruurlo,” Buis is up to tricks, setting a swinging ditty of a tune over clanking percussion that foreshadows odd things to come. The innocent melody is jumped by harsh saxophone honks and trills, and the poor thing falls apart, finally regaining the upper hand after enduring further saxophone insults. It’s the album in a nut shell – deadpan, witty, inventive, and swinging. Similar nonsequiturs appear in “Do Zijn” which jump cuts into a free pulse piano trio interlude in the midst of a peppy melody played over a mechanical, and rather berserk, rhythm. Tweaking styles (especially Ellington) and genres is part of the Astronotes’ agenda, as well. The title track is a riff on Ellingtonian programmatic tunes. It arrives like a train in the night, with train-whistle chords and piston-rod riffs emerging gradually from quiet nocturnal sounds, and then rumbles along over a rolling beat. An Ellingtonian elegance is heard in “Biefstuk” as well, with Mingus gospel moans and pin prick riffs backing a warm caramel of a solo by Buis. “Youth (for Harry Carney)” plays like a pocket Far East Suite with Latin, swing, ska, and warped march rhythms evoking generalized “exotic” locales as baritone saxophonist Frans Vermeerssen plays the gorgeous melody and solos. “Hummelo” is a happy-go-lucky tune, but soloists Tobias Delius, Buis, and pianist Achim Kaufmann work at oblique tangents to the theme, as if they didn’t quite trust the carefree nature of the composition. On a more classical note, bassist Wilbert de Joode is featured soloist on “Albast,” a chamber improvisation with overtones of Stravinsky circa “L’Histoire du Soldat.” The band displays a deep-down understanding of Buis’s compositions. They never overplay the material for laughs and they’re execution is tight in the loose way that betrays familiarity with the charts. This is a CD of serious music that isn’t self-serious, and a joy from start to finish.
John Carter and Bobby Bradford
Clarinetist John Carter and trumpeter Bobby Bradford had one of the deepest musical partnerships in jazz. They did more than just work well together; they were two voices so complementary that it is very hard to imagine one without the other. Carter, who died of cancer in 1991, was baroque and mercurial, urgent and in-your-face; Bradford, was lyrical, a subtle colorist, introspective but sly. When they worked together, one set off the virtues of the other in high relief. They had their own vocabulary of sound and color, line and texture, and a sense of time that was theirs alone. Their voices dominated whatever ensemble they played in because no one else could fully share in what they had.
The Carter-Bradford collaboration is one of the great stories of jazz since the 1960s. In the 1970s, working in what was at the time the fairly obscure Los Angeles jazz scene, they grew from very talented journeyman musicians under the obvious influence of Ornette Coleman into fully formed and highly sophisticated individual stylists. Carter became an instrumental innovator in his own right. By mid-decade, he gave up playing saxophone to concentrate on clarinet, the instrument he was seemingly destined to play, and he pushed it to new expressive heights. The Mosaic Select box includes two of their best early albums, Seeking and Secrets, both recorded for the Los Angeles based Revelation label. It also contains more than two hours of previously unissued material, including a 1979 duet that is a major addition to their discography.
Carter and Bradford made their recording debut in 1969 on Seeking, working with a quartet called the New Art Jazz Ensemble, featuring bassist Tom Williamson and drummer Bruz Freeman, a brother of Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman. Ornette casts a shadow over Seeking, but there is plenty of evidence of individuality and hints of things to come. Bradford had spent time in Coleman bands, first in Los Angeles and later in New York. On “Village Dancers,” it’s clear that Bradford listened to Cherry from the way his hunt-and-peck lines open up into smears and split tones. But unlike Cherry, Bradford kept a foot firmly in bebop – he even inserts quotes in his solos – and his patient development of motifs and a crepuscular tone show an affinity for boppers like Kenny Dorham. Bradford also never displays any of the faux naïve folk qualities that Cherry was fond of. At this early stage, Carter played alto and tenor saxophone in addition to clarinet. Although you can hear Coleman’s tonal ambiguity and reliance on melodic development in his sax work on “In the Vineyard” and “Karen on Monday,” Carter, like Bradford, hewed closer to bop than Coleman. His tone is less insistently vocal than Coleman’s, and he’s more given to outbursts of darker emotions. When he turns to clarinet on “Sticks and Stones,” the music simply lights up in a way it doesn’t when he’s on saxophone. Neither rhythm section member quite has the charisma of the horn players, but they make meaningful contributions. Freeman’s beat comes and goes amidst freer pulses on “In the Vineyard” and Williamson is an agile bassist who vacillates between anchoring the beat and cavorting with the horns.
A second session by the quartet recorded around the same time as the released material includes new versions of “Sticks and Stones” and “The Village Dancers” as well as “Domino” (also heard on the band’s currently out of print Flying Dutchman release Flight for Four) and “Blues Upstairs.”
Three years later, Carter and Bradford returned to the studio for two sessions from which emerged their second Revelation disc, Secrets. Both sessions featured piano as part of the group for the first time. The earlier date, from November 1971 featuring pianist Bill Henderson, bassist Henry Franklin, and drummer Freeman, resulted in only one track used on the album. Three additional tunes from the session include the first recorded version of “Woodmen Hall Blues.” The remainder of the LP came from an April 1972 session with pianist Nate Morgan, bassist Louis Spears, and drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler.
The growth in the music is noticeable as the Coleman-Cherry influence is receding into the background. Carter plays only alto and clarinet on these dates and his tone is darker and more urgent. His note placement at the beginning of “Rosevita’s Dance” signals an increasingly personal approach to phrasing. And it’s clearer than ever that clarinet is his instrument. “In a Pretty Place” (you can hear the title in the rhythm of the melody) is built out of disciplined use of characteristic intervals and both his solo and Bradford’s extend the mood of the composition in a more developed way than before. On “Circle” his clarinet displays a breathtaking lightness and grace as he rockets between a sober, rather dusky chalumeau and the shockingly urgent upper register. Bradford, too, is evolving his own soling logic, a combination of tight linear development and sudden breaks in continuity that is both bracingly free and convincingly organic.
Then there was recorded silence from Bradford and Carter as a working combination, although they continued to play and rehearse together intensively. In 1973, Bradford hopped back to England, where he recorded once before with John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1971. Carter appeared on albums by Vinnie Golia and Tim Berne, who were among the first reed players to get hip to his remarkable breakthroughs on the instrument that now occupied his full attention. Carter’s long unavailable Echoes of Rudolph’s (Ibedon), recorded in 1977 (among this writer’s Top 10 Lps in Urgent Need of Reissue), was Carter’s only American recording as a leader before the duet session that is the historical and musical highlight of the Mosaic set. (Moers also recorded a stunning solo album, A Suite of Early American Folk Pieces for Clarinet, and Variations on Selected Themes for Jazz Quintet, which featured Bradford, in 1979.)
If the first two discs chronicle Bradford and Carter paring away influences to find what is theirs alone, the duet session finds them taking what is theirs alone and discovering how much they can do with it. From the opening notes, it’s evident that very, very few musicians ever achieved the degree of intimacy and freedom Carter and Bradford did. “And She Speaks” opens with an amazingly unified compound trumpet-clarinet sound, emblematic of how close they’d grown musical. They spontaneously return to these long tones as they improvise, giving the piece its structure; the music breathes along with them. Bradford plays pure melody, he’s an Art Farmer of free jazz, and his fat low register blends seamlessly with Carter’s chalumeau. His comments during Carter’s improvisations crop up unexpectedly, creating surreal juxtapositions that augment or highlight or contrast with what Carter is doing. On “Pinch,” one of them starts an idea, then the other overlaps at the tail end of it to maintain a thread that doesn’t necessarily lead in the anticipated direction. They nose around close to one another, grow excited together, egg one another one, express enthusiasm for what the other plays. The accord they strike is always in-the-moment, but their confidence in each other and an uncanny ability to anticipate or pick up ideas from each other, gives the music a profoundly considered feeling.
Each of them plays an unaccompanied solo in addition to the duets. On “Redwood,” Bradford is content to make something beautiful, sincere, almost modest. In its lyricism and sincerity, Bradford’s solo is perhaps closer in spirit of Baikida Carrol’s The Spoken Word or Leo Smith’s sound-silence constructions than Bowie’s iconoclastic irony. Carter’s unaccompanied solo, “This Earth Feeling” is simply astonishing, a virtuoso display of advanced technique in service of a unique musical vision. His lines are hummingbird fast and the high notes are eagle-talon sharp. Quarter tones, split tones, slurs and growls punctuate languid, wistful melodies and wind-tossed phrases that rise and plunge with dizzying speed. “Scramble,” the concluding duet is pure exuberance, a wind sprint of a tune that ends the session on an exultant note.
Although Carter was critically celebrated in the final decade of his career, it’s difficult to assess his subsequent influence. At the moment, all of his important recorded work from the 1980s—including the monumental five LP series, Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music—is out of print, making some of his best, and certainly most ambitious, work largely inaccessible to young players. Emanem’s pair of duet albums, Tandem 1 and Tandem 2, can stand with the newly released session on this set, however, as a readily available source of inspiration. Canadian clarinetist Francois Houle and Dutch multi-reed player Ab Baars have recorded CDs of Carter’s compositions (Baar studied with Carter briefly). But the larger influences still remain intangible or indirect. It’s a major lacuna in the recent historical record that this exemplary box set goes some way in correcting. Time for a Carter-Bradford renaissance.