Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Well, what with all the foofaraw about my Vision Fest comments, I thought it would be a good time to dip back into my vinyl trawling and, wouldn't you know it, we find ourselves at the edge of Braxton territory. Among other things, listening to the still astonishing "For Alto" serves as a fine tonic for much of the tired, uninspired playing heard this past weekend.
I'm pretty sure my first exposure to Braxton's playing came when I heard Dave Holland's classic "Conference of the Birds" LP, probably in '73. I was getting the NMDS catalog at the time and they carried the Delmark label so I quickly went and ordered "For Alto".
Where to start? For one thing, Braxton is 23 years old here. 23 fucking years old. (Allow me an aside: Were there any 23-year old or younger musicians in evidence last weekend? Not that I saw. Hell, were there any audience members that young? ahem, sorry) You have this amazing young musician issuing two LPs worth of solo, improvised alto saxophone. I hope younger readers realize how utterly unprecedented this was. There had been a handful of recorded solo saxophone performances in jazz including Coleman Hawkins and Dolphy, but an entire record? Two records? Improvised? Yikes.
(Another lovely facet: Braxton is already dedicating his pieces, deferential to those who inspired him even as he blazes new ground. Fantastic, on Side One, to have dedications to both Cage and Cecil Taylor.)
After a brief, soft piece dedicated to Jack Gell (who, iirc, was a teacher of Braxton's?) we're launched into the Cage piece. What the relationship is might be hard to fathom but this is one rip-roaring, assaultive, unfailingly and volcanically creative improv. Stick this baby on stage at Orensanz and everyone could've gone home. I just goggled "Murray de Pillars", the dedicatee of the following, lovely track but find little outside of Braxton references though he may have been partially responsible for a Black Panther mural in LA. It's a fine early example of the sort of attack Brax would engage in periodically, contrasting delicate, flowery lines with harsh, abrasive ones, self-contained arguments. The Cecil dedication is in a similar vein as the Cage but more leapingly joyous with something of an explosive dance feel. He hits blue notes than erupts off them; very Tayloresque now that I think about it.
The sidelong "Dedicated to Ann and Peter Allen" (don't have my Martinelli discography handy to check the composition numbers) is the one that doubtless gave me the most trouble throughout the first 15 or so years I owned the album but is now possibly the deepest, most intriguing track. While the basic content is fairly lyrical in the best tradition of Brax free balladry, much of it impinges on the ultra-quiet territory explored much, much later by players like Butcher, Rainey, etc. Breath-tones, soft key taps, areas of silence, they're all here. It's not an area he frequented too much later on (to this degree anyway, unless I'm forgetting something) and I wonder what he'd say if asked why not? In any case, it's quite a beautiful piece, one that post-AMM fans should give a listen to.
The first cut on Side Three is a great early example of the kind of yearning, quasi-blues cry that would crop up again and again in his solo output; always felt Braxton dug deeper into this sort of song than any of his contemporaries. The second is a tortuous, wrenching piece, his alto sounding as if being torqued out of shape while being played. It also prefigures the kind of low pedal points Roscoe Mitchell would later use in pieces like "Eeltwo"; curious who was influencing who....It concludes with some wonderfully controlled multiphonics.
"For Alto" closes with another sidelong piece, a dedication to the late Leroy Jenkins. Again, one of the amazing things about this entire project, even aside from a double solo saxophone album in the first place (in 1968) is that Braxton makes absolutely no concession to conformity, doesn't remotely approach a standard, play in regular rhythm or confine himself to melodic or even post-Coltrane tonalities. The structures are rocky, irregular; in a word, difficult. Maybe only Mitchell (as heard on his contemporaneous "Congliptious") was in the same ballpark. This final piece is damned brutal, juxtaposing long pure tones with outrageous blats and squawks; very slablike. Richard Serra set to music should sound something like this.
Fantastic recording, still excites almost four decades later.
23 years old.