Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer

Improvised music has its genres and sub-genres, its degrees of license from mild to total, its matrices, personalities and circumstances that tend to define kinds of interaction. Its vitality – compounded by the degree to which it is improvised and the degree to which its effect is immediate – depends on the presence of new materials and relationships. It’s the nature of a certain creeping staleness that one may only become aware of it when hearing something genuinely fresh. Each of the recent recordings discussed here might be considered trans-genre, to one degree or another combining different principles of content formation, eschewing typical modes of response. If description of a music is always problematic, in each of these cases it’s more difficult than usual because of diverse notions of form practiced simultaneously.

Anthony Braxton’s Quartet (New Haven) 2014 (Firehouse 12) has been described as his “rock record,” though I’m not quite sure how one might apply the term. The quartet consists of Braxton, his most frequent collaborator Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Greg Saunier. The essential structure of the group includes the frequent team of Braxton/Bynum encountering Cline/Saunier as a duo, another dialogue in process. The result is a four-CD set, each disc dedicated to a different American musician: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown, and Merle Haggard. Recorded over two days, the tracks range from 57 to 64 minutes in length, played to the flexible Braxton hourglass. The instrumentation is a key to the diversity. Braxton plays six different saxophones: sopranino, soprano, alto, baritone, bass and contrabass. Bynum plays cornet and flugelhorn (relatively subtle distinctions) but extends his range with trumpbone and piccolo and bass trumpets. Cline changes his “voice” frequently – pedals, attack, content, as is usual – often employing frequency shifting to create walls of bass sound. Saunier is an elemental drummer, constantly poking and animating the sonic substance.

The individual winds aren’t deployed for long periods to develop sustained textures, but are switched out frequently, often sopranino saxophone or piccolo trumpet for contrabass or bass for maximum contrast. There are sometimes extended passages of Braxton on rumbling contrabass combining with Cline’s thick, thundering bass frequencies to create opaque textures (“Janis Joplin” and “James Brown” in particular), while at others Braxton and Bynum can virtually fuse linear identities when working in their upper registers, these textures in turn rapidly giving way to others. Bynum mentions in his notes that “Anthony brought in some sketches of colored lines criss-crossing pages of shifting time signatures, but encouraged us not to worry too much about the written materials.” There are occasional moments when an individual or an assembly might be referencing a “score,” but this feels like four hours of some of the freshest interaction one will encounter, literally changing character and density from minute to minute, alive with electric squiggles or a battered cowbell sound, or just as readily turning to a sudden reverie highlighted by a theremin-like call or a spiralling sopranino interlude (the latter two arising in “James Brown”). For a change of pace amidst constant change, there’s a sustained free alto solo driven by rapid-fire drumming and “virtual” electric bass that gives way to Bynum’s lyric muted cornet, an almost traditional Braxton quartet mode in the midst of all that’s new (“Merle Haggard”). The pieces are experienced, not remembered or consumed.

There are complex relationships to time and change in Braxton’s oeuvre. It’s a commonplace to mention how much Braxton music there is, a proliferation of distinct ideas each embedded in vast multi-disc sets, whether of Parker or Tristano material, Echo Echo Mirror House Music or Syntactical Ghost Trance. What’s most significant, however, is the density of Braxton’s creativity: sometimes there are enough suggestions, ideas and hints at possible routes and meanings in five minutes of this work to sustain an hour in someone else’s band.

To say that Blasphemious Fragments (Rastascan) by Phil Minton (voice), John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophone) and Gino Robair (percussion, electronics, piano) is very different is simply to restate my point. It also sounds different to me from anything I’ve ever heard, even from these musicians. Like the other musics discussed here, it suggests the notion of a dream logic, an assemblage that cannot be fixed in place even as one hears it, a brilliant unity achieved with unrelated sounds. There are 11 tracks here, nine under five minutes, “Rutledge’s door” stretching past eight, the relative epic “Sumptuous disturbances (and a Carol)” stretching past ten. At times there’s a sense of continuum as exchange, as if the three partners are extending one another’s notes: a sudden burst of language; an unidentified, perhaps electronic, drone; a truncated piano flurry; a few saxophone notes. It’s a monody that’s somehow being shared. While there may be a continuous streaming line moving between the three, individual sounds and textures seldom sustain themselves long enough for a listener’s interpretation or assignment of meaning. Sometimes the event threshold is so low – quavering whistles, airy saxophone harmonics (parts of “Rutledge’s door”) – as to suggest that the musicians are polishing air. “Sustaining vain gestures in the air” (the title perhaps a miracle of descriptive accuracy) contains some querulous whistling; air being passed through a saxophone and managing to change pitch without a note being articulated; a semblance of a thinned and extended cry or groan from Minton. The quality of collective restraint achieved here, a brilliant hesitation, may be sufficiently potent to embarrass a late Beckett play.

That sense of dream logic is central as well to Terraphonia (Creative Sources) by the duo of New Yorker Patrick Brennan on alto saxophone and Lisboan Abdul Moimême on expanded guitar. While they have long been acquainted, their musical orientations are fundamentally different. Brennan plays within a sense of the jazz continuum, a highly expressive player possessed of a brilliant economy of line, akin to similarly laconic players like Frode Gjerstad and the young (and perhaps most individualistic) John Tchicai. Brennan’s use of silence is more about space for reflection than drama, a heightened awareness, and he can infest a fragment of a scale with tremendous psychic weight. Moimême comes from the free jazz tradition, but he’s very much a free improviser. He has thoroughly reimagined the guitar, standing between two horizontal instruments, sometimes covering them in sheet metal and playing them with e-bows, mallets and other devices. His palette is as varied and his sounds as bright and specific (and not dissimilar) as those of an early Cage percussion piece or a Harry Partch ensemble, an orchestra that consists of percussion and strings, acoustic, amplified and electronic sounds. The music is a dance between Brennan’s linear, highly inflected (mutated, vocalic, emotive, personal) lines and Moimême’s variety theatre universe in which models of order and entropy are repeatedly proposed and erased.

There’s a startling moment (among many) at the beginning of “Ndụ Enweghị Ihe Abụọ / No Two” (Brennan’s titles involve multiple languages, here Igbo and English, as well as compounds and neologisms) in which Brennan’s line is moving from emotive cries to a complex lyricism, all of it embraced by a matching foghorn melody and an expanding orchestra. The music’s continuity is complex, an absolutely shared creation. As a parallel, Partch’s piece for Chet Baker, “Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World” – combining  bass marimba, tuned bamboo drums, trumpet and baritone saxophone – may feel like a distant precursor (recently recorded by the ensemble Partch in its original form on Sonata Dementia [Bridge]). The brief “Gotabrilhar” is sufficiently powerful and detailed to deny any attempt at description.

While the preceding recordings present specific challenges of scale, complexity and abstraction, Swedish-born, Berlin-based bassist/ producer Petter Eldh’s overtly playful Koma Saxo (We Jazz) may present other challenges around genre and studio manipulation, fusing the energies of free jazz and the dance club, while pressing towards a novel hybrid with distinctive post-production strategies.

With an average age 20 to 30 years younger than the previous bands (I worked it out), Koma Saxo includes three saxophonists, Swedish tenor saxophonists Otis Sandsjö and Jonas Kullhammar and Finnish alto and baritone saxophonist Mikko Innanen. Rooted in Eldh’s rock-solid ostinatos, the music is driven by the furious, machine-fast patterns of drummer Christian Lillinger, Eldh’s partner in the trio Punkt.Vrt.Plastik with pianist Kaja Draksler and the quartet Amok Amor with trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Wanja Slavin. If the instrumentation and sound palette suggest free jazz, the track list suggests a pop record, 12 tracks coming in at 36’13”. The first thing you hear is a throng of saxophones against a fast drumbeat, but there’s something strange about the saxophones: they’re backwards, the recording reversed, their attacks more like flutes.

With declared roots in Dr. Dre as well as Peter Brötzmann, Eldh prefers dramatic revision to the scrupulously invisible editing that sometimes shapes recordings of free improvisation. “Fanfarum For Komarum II” has Caribbean dance grooves propelled by overdubbed and looped saxophone sections that break for spontaneous explosions from the individual saxophonists. Eldh has constructed something that resembles the joy of Albert Ayler’s “Holy Family,” the vitality of something by Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. One literally hears two (or more) things at once, in part an inquiry into the notion of authenticity.

The most amazing mutation may be “LH440,” the keening saxophones reaching back to Mingus’s dream-like evocations of Ellington before the horns break up into individual isolated electronic lines. “Port Koma” is virtual collage with foregrounded bass and brushes on snare. Regional roots are also apparent. “Cyclops Dance” derives from a novelty dance hit of 2001 by the late Matti Oiling, once Finland’s most eminent studio drummer. “Så Rinner Tiden Brot,” by Swedish songwriter Olle Adolphson, has a hymn-like depth, while the arrangement of Edward Vesala’s beautiful “Byågz” strongly suggests the cyclical patterns of Terry Riley.

There’s a certain tradition of bands that thrive on different values, but with each of these groups, there’s a sense that they’re still somewhere else again, each, by its own means, producing a previously unknown compound.

©2019 Stuart Broomer

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