Thursday, December 06, 2007
I've maintained before and I don't see any particular reason to change my opinion now, that the last great idea in jazz was Braxton's collage music, specifically his strategy of allowing members of his groups (initially the "classic" quartet with Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway) to introduce any of his compositions, at any time during a performance. Improvisation using compositions themselves as the elements, rather than phrases. You obviously need a few pieces to be in place before you can consider a strategy like this--one, a group thats pretty well attuned to your music and to each other and second, a "book" both extensive and known to the ensemble like the proverbial back of the hand. In addition, maybe most importantly, you need to have the confidence to allow whatever happens to happen.
I'm actually curious--maybe someone knows--exactly how much freedom in this regard Braxton allowed. Was it unlimited? If so, the other members would seem to have reined themselves in pretty well, usually integrating only one to three other pieces into the primary one. Could the introduction of "external" material only occur during the improv section? I don't think I ever heard a thematic portion interrupted. (The double disc by Splatter/Debris may have gone further here). Whatever, it's a wonderful idea, one that I'm sorry to see not used by very many others (at all!) Just think how much more interesting, say, Masada would be if the Zornian straitjacket was loosened.
Anyway, my first exposure to this was the 3-record set on Leo, "London (1985)". It's the only one of the three I own (Coventry and Birmingham are the others, I think?), probably because at the time, I admit to not being entirely taken with it. It took a few years to grow on me. Listening now, it does indeed sound markedly different from his prior work, far less streamlined in the themes, more billowing and amorphous in the improvs. Even those themes carried over from earlier recordings sound less regimented, more expansive.
I saw this quartet two or three times, once at a short-lived place on Canal Street--was it called New Music Cafe? That night, they did a remarkably difficult and diffuse set, offering little in the way of themes, nothing remotely catchy. It was severe and abstract all the way through, one of those concerts where you don't realize quite how good it was 'til you leave and are walking up a cold street thinking, "Wow".
A little surprised how good this sounds tonight, to tell the truth. But it does.