Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Who first articulated the modernist imperative in jazz in words, if not deeds? If a vote was taken, James P. Johnson would finish out of the money. But, if jazz modernism is framed as a catalytic within the entertainment market, then the pianist’s November 1929 recording of “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” deserves mention. Its message is cheekily sung by Johnson, Clarence Williams and an unidentified ensemble recording as the Great Day New Orleans Singers, a performance replete with a plucky banjo solo – an instrument modernism would soon snuff. However, Johnson’s winking at whole tones and augmented chords supports the idea that modernism is a subversive endeavor, one that can be more effectively embedded in the mainstream initially with a sly smile than a manifesto.

Jazz’s target demographics were in the first stages of shifting profoundly and unexpectedly four and a half years later, when the first of the Classic Brunswick & Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-1942 was waxed; instead of being largely qualified and urban, jazz’s audience became younger, whiter and more dispersed coast to coast seemingly overnight, the result of nationwide radio broadcasts like Let’s Dance. This prompted a modulation in the projection of jazz modernism, one effortlessly and disarmingly personified by the pianist. As a stylist, Wilson mediated the robust swing of Earl Hines and the brilliant flourishes of Art Tatum – both personally contributed to Wilson’s budding voice; Hines counseling him on swinging the time, and Tatum breaking down his more labyrinthine runs.

Perhaps more importantly, Wilson possessed a buttoned-down demeanor nurtured by his parents, both of whom concluded their careers in education on the faculty of Tuskegee Institute. His countenance was reflected in his lyricism and even attack, qualities rooted in a wide array of early experiences: boyhood studies of violin, clarinet and oboe; a music degree from Talladega College that emphasized classical piano and theory; not seeing his first live jazz until 1928; inheriting Tatum’s chair in Toledo saxophonist/clarinetist Milt Senior’s mannered drummerless band. Without this bearing on and off the bandstand, Wilson may not have been drafted by John Hammond to break the color barrier in 1935 by joining Benny Goodman’s trio with Gene Krupa.

Even at 20, Wilson exuded a modernist vitality more aligned with a Duesenberg Phaeton or the Chrysler Building than to Cubism or Finnegan’s Wake. His solo recordings from mid-‘54 to January ‘36 outline his transition away from a reliance on Hines-inspired pyrotechnics to the streamlined style that became his brand. Wilson included “Liza” on his first session, a side not immediately released in the well-justified fear of being overshadowed by Tatum’s just-issued version; despite a few highlights, Wilson’s simply isn’t in the same league. By the time he records “I Feel Like a Feather in the Breeze” 20 months later, Wilson had found his niche, using his impressive technique, an architectural sense of form, and a Lester Young-like knack for storytelling, in a seamless, captivating manner.

Wilson’s mature style served him equally well in ensemble settings. On a summer ‘38 septet-plus-singer date, Wilson scampers gleefully on the margins of convivial tunes like “On the Bumpy Road to Love” and “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” and provides smart, stripped-down accompaniment for singer Nan Wynn and solos by Jonah Jones, Benny Carter and Ben Webster. Yet, Wilson wasn’t simply a finesse player; on “Booly-Ja-Ja”, a rare excursion into tom tom-driven exotica from a ‘39 orchestra date, Wilson approaches pugilism with rumbling bass figures and a jabbing attack in the heated ensembles – he could muscle a big band ahead without breaking a sweat.

Still, it is Wilson’s work in small group sessions that best speaks to his precisely engineered modernism; he trimmed the harmonies and shifted the rhythms of stride, and gave his sleek right-hand lines breathing space at strategic points. Eventually, these components took on a permanent dapper gloss; but on a slow blues like “Just a Mood [Blue Mood]” from a ‘37 quartet session with Harry James, Red Norvo (on xylophone) and bassist John Simmons, Wilson shows grit as well as sophistication. At a brisk tempo, like the one taken on a ‘37 version of “Fine and Dandy” with three Ellington men – Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams – Wilson flies afield from the melody in one of his more brilliant solos. It is a reach to suggest that Wilson’s brand of modernism foreshadowed bebop; he simply maximized the relatively narrow latitudes afforded him, liberties that eventually set the stage for the revolution personified by Charlie Parker.

Before Parker, a legendary musician was a Buddy Bolden-like figure who evaporated into the mists with barely a trace. No jazz artist had triggered such a hail of abuse and adulation, or left so much debris in his wake. However, the quick-setting mythos surrounding Parker promoted a long-lasting literalism among his supporters that all but negated Johnson’s modernistic imperative, the apotheosis of this adherence being Supersax, the 1970s LA-based group that arranged Parker’s improvisations for a five-saxophone front line. The image of Parker became fuller – and more confounding – as biographers untangled the genius from the addict, the sophisticate from the vulgarian, and the supreme confidence that allowed Parker to effortlessly quote The Firebird mid-solo in Stravinsky’s presence from the implicitly self-loathing insecurity that led him to beg Varèse’s tutelage. Although there have been many honorific compositions by Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and others that, to varying degrees, tapped Parker’s lexicon, it is only in the 1970s that the saxophonist’s legacy is revisited by composers like Heiner Stadler and George Lewis, using materials, procedures and instruments unavailable to Parker or his contemporaries.

By the standard set by Lewis’ piece, Anthony Braxton took a relatively incremental approach to extending Parker’s music. His use of contrabass clarinet on takes of “Donna Lee” (in 1972 and ‘74) and “Ornithology” (also from ‘74) was provocative, but Parker’s compositions were not stretched like Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” in a ‘74 duet with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Occasional solo alto and duet tracks aside, Braxton’s “in the tradition” sessions did not set out to radically alter the material, but to reassert its relevance – and that of Hank Jones, Tete Montoliu and Braxton’s other collaborators – in a larger creative music context. It is not until his Charlie Parker Project of 1993 that Braxton placed Parker on a larger canvas, one realized over a week of performances, initially winnowed for a 2-disc hatART package. Although it was an engaging collection, Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project 1993 did not convey the full scope of Braxton’s extrapolations of the Parker legacy; it required 11 CDs – Sextet (Parker) 1993 issued on his New Braxton House imprint.

“Sextet” is a somewhat rough description, in that Ari Brown and Paul Smoker are in and out of the front line almost track by track. Misha Mengelberg and Joe Fonda also sit out occasionally. Whereas the hatART suggested Han Bennink was at least a somewhat constant presence, Pheeroan akLaff plays on all but one concert. The liberal mixing of duets, trios, quartets and quintets with full ensemble performances – as well as compositions by Dameron, Davis, Gillespie, and Hefti (and a few songbook staples) with Parker’s – created not a portrait of Parker per se, but a multi-layered historical scape with Parker as its focal point. (Coincidentally, with the release of the box set, there is now an overlay of Braxton’s own history: The mounting of the project occurred 25 years after the recording of Three Compositions of New Jazz, which is now 50 years old.)

More often than not, Braxton’s sextet veers far afield from bebop conventions and roams abstract, freely improvised areas; however, these forays are dependent upon their idiomatic fluency. With a well-timed aside, Mengelberg transcends mere contrarianism. Smoker throws the occasional lightning bolt. Brown evokes a bygone era with only a groan or a guffaw. akLaff, Bennink and Fonda know well how the small gestures that highlight or spark a bebop solo can become discrete sound events in an open field. Braxton’s own abilities to stretch if not disfigure jazz repertoire had been well-established for decades; but this was the first time he had an ensemble that was equally deft in this regard.

The prerequisite for this proposition to work is their ability to nail the hairpin turns of tunes like “An Oscar for Treadwell” and “Confirmation.” Smoker is a standout in this endeavor; he soars throughout, and applies just the right amount of bravado on Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and “Bebop.” Brown’s expert touch in adding unassuming heft to the ensembles is reminiscent of such ‘50s-vintage Chicago-raised tenor titans as Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, a quality that also permeates his solos. Brown and Smoker blend exceptionally well with Braxton’s more astringent saxophone sound; spurred on by the rhythm section, they project both mature authority and lingering youthful zeal. Without it, their outbound pivots would be less persuasive.

There are delightful surprises sprinkled throughout the collection. Braxton’s flute gives “Cardboard” a heretofore unheard effervescence, prompting Mengelberg to merrily scamper through the changes; it also gives a new tilt to “Mohawk” and “Klactoveedsedstene.” Contrabass clarinet is again employed to create dark smudged colors on a trio version of Miles’ “Sippin’at Bell’s” with Smoker and Fonda, which serves in one concert as an evocative lead-in to a scorching take on “Bebop.” And, he takes incessantly spiky yet strangely endearing turns at the piano, which prompt rechecking the personnel listing to make sure it is not Mengelberg.  

Sextet (Parker) 1993 is a thoroughly engaging and often brilliant reiteration of Braxton’s relationship to the jazz tradition, one representative of the inclusive ragtime-to-no-time brand of modernism of which he was a primary exponent in the 1970s. A common misunderstanding of that movement and Braxton’s role in it is that the endeavor is limited to juxtaposing materials from one era and procedures from another, later period. Braxton’s Parker project is better understood in relationship to Wilfred Mellers’ description of Lukas Foss’ oeuvre as “a pocket history of American music during the 20th Century.” One of the virtues of pocket histories is that, at their best, their concision transforms our understanding of their subjects. Braxton does that in regards to Parker’s music, the particles of which have been analyzed for nearly three-quarters of a century.

But, is Sextet (Parker) 1993 modernistic in Johnsonian terms? No, simply because a different model of time and its impact on art now prevails. Then, modern was synonymous with the new, and the new was equated with progress. That implicitly linear construct is now in ruins. Borges’ assertion that time is non-successive, with each moment containing all eternity – thus negating the idea of “new” – is a better, if imperfect lens through which to consider Braxton’s occasional shuttles through time, particularly given that the production of the box set was roughly contemporaneous with the appearance of Braxton’s ZIM Sextet/Septet, his latest excursion into the future.

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