- finally we get to the '76 quartet, and just in time: this version of the band is not long-lived, and (by the time my collection catches up with it) will soon be dissolved. exactly when lewis first played in the quartet, and how many performances there were by this band... two things i don't know yet. the sessionography project could take a long time to get there as it's a huge task, and some of the sources (e.g. the archives of a certain euro jazz fest) are not exactly 100% reliable. but martinelli, in his liner notes for news from the 70s (see below), names the graz concert as the "third to last" by this version of the band. just dortmund and berlin to follow this, then...
session 009: stefaniensaal, graz (2011 update - this boot was recently made available at TCF)
date: 28th october 1976
1. - a long, slow, ringing double voice calling out into silence, into space... seconds, weeks pass and eventually a second note confirms the heart's hope, that this is in fact my dear old friend comp. 23a back for another flight. that's a lovely surprise, first off. the piece comes full circle (*1), now so replete in fulfilled possibility that it's become an opener again... well, that sounds like the romantic ideal, so it's a question of how far the reality matches up.
the truly funereal pace of the opening theme seems only natural, such generous amounts of space being required in order to do full justice to the grandeur evoked by trombone and contrabass clarinet together - and possibly to allow anyone who did remember the piece well to savour the different voicing, lewis more of a second foghorn than anything else, a long way removed from wheeler's high, keening muted trumpet on the version which (still) sounds in so many ways definitive. and sure enough the two are manifestly continuing their platonic love affair in public, rejoicing in each other's voice.
naturally enough, all this is taking place against a familiar backdrop of washes and swathes of cymbal, waves on the beach, an effect which altschul seems to have mastered a lifetime ago already. holland is not really noticeable at all in the first couple of minutes. and in hindsight there's the important clue straight away, the one which offers the key to discovering the internal dynamic of the quartet of this point, fully in motion with the new man not only installed, but already a seasoned voyager of braxton's music with or without the others: in theory the replacement of wheeler with lewis opens the scope of the working band right up, way up, but of course in practice it's going to be limited to the speed of its slowest member, and we're about to return to an unresolved question, first turned over for inspection here.
with hindsight (and weeks between first, second and third plays of this recording) it's inescapable for me, right here on the first track the faithful bassist's leaving the music is foreshadowed. if he's playing arco during the theme (possible, even at that pace, for him to do so without my knowing for sure - we know his bow technique is immaculate, one of the steadiest in the business) then he adds nothing to the weight of the monster - just as his weight was not required for the opening theme of the studio version - and when he first becomes clearly noticeable as a separate voice within the cleared space, it's in the third minute, it's plucked notes and it sounds a bit jazzy. right there, a whole huge cluster of universes get wrapped up in a black drape and sealed off. the territory has just been circumscribed into something far smaller than the two leaders (which is what this sounds like, braxton and lewis co-piloting the group on this short journey) had envisaged, and one wonders what sort of subtle shock passes between them at that moment. but then at 2.43, holland uses the bow to lovely effect and we know now that it's not a question of anything being ruined as such, the group can adjust and accommodate... but that's what it has to do now in any case. the far-flung territories explored at such intense length during the two reed-and-bone duos... maybe those aren't attainable tonight, or at any event not yet.
so it ends up being simply a pretty, ornate rendition of a "standard", albeit one of b's own - the highlight, surely, comes around 5.40 when lewis picks up the very first cues of an impending alto master-tag and goes along for the ride, perfectly matching the leader's next swooping phrases with effortless timing and breathtaking confidence, the trick literally having the same effect on me third time round as it did the first, drawing a gasp of pleasure as soon as i detect the audacity of what lewis is about to do, watching then in awe as he executes the double tag with perfect precision. but yes, or rather no, this moment, glorious as it is, does not represent any vast addition to the collective knowledge of the territories which lie within the range of this vessel. even the first time round, i picked up jazzy routines from altschul at times, sucked back into it by holland, the result sounding incongruous and rather inappropriate. and although the two horns toy with the piece expertly, spinning their own separate trajectories languidly through space, in the certain knowledge that they will intersect at beautiful moments as-yet unglimpsed (and they do), they are more or less out there alone, altschul caught somewhat between two gravities, two directional pulls, holland straining back or simply unable to kick on - around 4.00, what is he doing?
so... within less than seven minutes the piece already straggles towards change, the four players shuffling hesitantly into place for whatever the next territory might be; though in practice the two horns end up unaccompanied for a short while, continuing their exalted conversation briefly - in the rarefied space where the others apparently can't or won't follow.
2. - the good news is, with the above limitations established (and in about four mins we'll receive confirmation of just how early they were established), the band settles down to play a cracking high-end free jazz set, including holland who takes up the bow early on here and reminds us again of what deftness of touch he has with it.
growing organically from a free space of whistles and squeaks and flutters, a group texture slowly shifts and takes shape, the arco bass dominating for a moment or two, hinting briefly at a repetition series - it's a red herring, and as the four start to converge on the next jumping-off point, a background for fast line extension is being set up, which resolves suddenly into "four winds" (at 4.35 in second file). back when i first bought news from the 70s (a few years ago, before i knew... etc), there seemed nothing very odd about such a choice of material - for that matter when i first heard the graz gig (spring '07?), it didn't strike me as a surprise either, but it surely would do so now if i didn't know it was coming. it's as if a simple homecoming is being set up for tonight rather than any serious attempt at deep exploration - but that's ok too, so long as there's no coasting involved... well, lewis takes first solo, and with the theme left behind and a generic fast free jazz backing, he works his way busily through several minutes, unable to stray very far from the path, but with that huge tone, incredible speed and occasional humour to "fall back" on, he manages to keep up the pace easily enough. yes, i can't conceal the fact that i'd prefer to hear him moving farther out at this point but still, with the three of them (minus the leader) in full flight i have to admit that the engine sounds wonderfully well-oiled. teasing his way back into the theme, lewis hands over to holland again for a full bass solo, without the bow this time.
again, this is where we're in danger of losing momentum because pizzicato, holland's solos often fail to add up to more than the sum of their parts; i.e. where others move beyond mere notes into pure, free utterance, the bassist tends to flourish handfuls of the things without ever seeming to suggest that there could be something more. and that is what happens here, scurries up and down the neck (with tremendous technical facility, as always) not disguising the lack of actual musical growth here, but at least we retain movement and, again, the momentum is not lost. around 11.25 we finally hear the sopranino nosing its way into the space, and at last the leader will take his turn. as usual, before long (and again, several times before he is done) he will make me sigh with delight here, but although the impetus is harnessed for several more minutes at full pace, eventually peaking with great intensity at about 16.25, the sound of the sax, bass and drums together in this sort of environment is so comfortable and familiar, it's worryingly easy for the listener to relax into it and doze off slightly (which is what happened to me at this point in the actual session). alternatively, if high-performance free jazz is all you ever wanted the band to play... look no further.
lewis brings a charmingly casual outlook to the restatement - what, you done already? ok, sure - and a fast drum solo wraps things up here. when the four voices next converge, we'll again be on the outskirts of somewhere new...
3. - and appropriately enough, after that, the next transition phase seems to drop us off near "q&a", which three of these guys played on many occasions, some years ago now... this is really the freest, most open and extended piece we're entering now, and it's the last phase of this short (second?) set. (the encore which follows was surely the last music played tonight.)
free and open is very much the order of the day as all four players stretch their limbs easily, unwinding and unfolding in their own time, lewis filling the hall with his golden bell, holland just as happily non-idiomatic as anyone else here, and by this point even in today's listening, i'm pretty much won over at last by the group's actual performance on the day. the sound, too, is remarkably well captured on this recording, holland's guitar-like plinks and plunks (stopped, right up high on the neck, third minute) clear evidence of this - we have all we need in terms of detail.
first time round my attention was very much divided, one part of my mind frantically scrabbling around for comparisons, not entirely happy with being unsure of the territory - by today i had given up on this, and was able to observe the gradual shaping of the piece a bit more closely. yes, they really do their take their sweet time heading anywhere, and it is interesting to acknowledge here how comfortable everyone sounds with it, flung out into the nether regions with few signposts even visible. towards 4.30 there is a significant build-up, but it subsides into elapsing steam, eked out into the ether - by 5.00 it almost sounds as if richard teitelbaum is playing, and we drift. so, shift up, shift back down - but now we are ready to go somewhere, as holland counts off a theme on his own (commencing around 5.13 in the third file), and by 6.00 they are all playing this piece, whichever it is (later it sounds uncannily like a faster first cousin of 40n or even 23e, but it's not either... one of the 60s is what i keep wanting to say). whatever it is, with the theme more or less laid out (won't be fully run through until later), we're back into leisurely strolling and stretching. at ten minutes in, where are we - and where are we going?
by this stage, it's gone way past the point of trying to lay individual blame for any lack of momentum or urgency: it's more as if the excellence of the playing aside, the collective mind of the four players at this time cannot move any further than the speedy pattern-swapping that eventually develops as we approach and pass 11.00 - braxton having picked up and played with his own echo, lewis grabbing a piece of that action too - and back into cooking mode we go, smooth as you like; though rather unexpectedly, then, holland breaks it all up, digging immediately back into the theme and from 12.15ish, there it is, the sequence which would identify it once and for all (if only my memory for subtle differences between melodies were more acute!). a minute later, the two horns are seemingly in perfect accord, indeed all four are flying together at high speed now, and when the leader takes off eventually on a terrific clarinet solo, he has excellent support from the bass. furious bursts rub up against silken-smooth singing until lewis takes over around 15.45, b. still interjecting violently and at will, but without intruding since by now he and lewis are of one mind again; fulminating attacks continue from both with full, locked-in-tight support from the bass and drums to ensure that the set nears its end on a resonating high, more decorous arco bass and cunning pseudo-synth textures from the clarinet ushering in the silence and warm applause.
4. - and then the encore, and another charming surprise - well, it was in the actual session, when to hear the band rip into comp. 6i was just the icing on the cake; of course, since then (seems like ages ago now) i've been able to find a bit more context, namely the fact that the same piece was resurrected not for this date but for the "special quintet" earlier in the year. something about it obviously appealed enough to bring it back once again, without wheeler this time of course, but with the original rhythm section restored, still (just about) intact after more than five years.
- and this just seems like the perfect way to wrap up the evening, send everyone out into the night cruising on huge natural high..! with those prior limitations accepted, the old mutant bop rockinghorse comes charging out for one last (?) canter - and of course it reminds d.h. once again of where one or two of the ideas for tunes on conference came from, since we're about it... (i've said more than once on the blog that this piece is the precursor of holland's "see-saw".) but above all it gives everyone the chance to cook their ass off, so to speak. that chance in turn is seized gratefully, everyone plays a blinder and some serious fun is had. the theme itself now has a rest phase shoehorned into it, a spacious, time-stopping delay before the da capo, which hints early on how much fun really is up for grabs here.
lewis takes first solo, gets to scratch his bop jones, drop any j.j. johnson or curtis fuller hangups he may still have hidden under his shirt; but while we're talking bop trombone, hear that man play and remind me, this was the instrument which nearly got made extinct, 'cos no-one could play bop fast enough on it..? we know how things can change, and how much the 60s players suddenly had to draw on coming up, but one has to ask: those early bop guys, were they really, really trying or what? (*2) lewis whirls through this one with his tone on full display when he wants to sing it out there, lightning-fast when it's called for, all up and down and basically all over, not much in the way of extended technique as such, this not being that sort of piece (or indeed that sort of date as it turns out); but a good hard workout nonetheless, shaking out all those pockets earlier 'bonemen couldn't shake. when the leader sings his way teasingly in around 2.45, then takes over ten seconds later this sounds perfectly natural, this brisk excursion being paced for around the same time as the studio version (solos in a different order of course), not a big twenty-minute monster like some previous incarnations (*3). and besides...
...this number always was the cue for some major alto damage. stunning almost at once on entry, b's solo really takes flight off this simple base. not for once into manic gear-shifting and buzzes and barks, but in song form again, the hallmark phrases all in place but with a touch more lyricism than usual, albeit lyricism with plenty of bite. some long, lingering, floated lines work magic in there somewhere and the overall shape is one which impresses me greatly, especially today. it's all too easy for this impressiveness to hijack one's attention, shunt it into reverie - that's happening by 5.10, when b's invitation to indulge in speedy double-swoops is picked up by lewis around the third time of asking, the two then entering into the sort of reed-and-brass coda which b. used to get up to with wheeler - again, unbelievable but true, lewis is able to bring more precision to this sort of line at this extreme speed, and it's the leader who seems to flag first on this occasion. there's then a total breakdown for holland's last solo of the night, plucked again, racing away in much the same manner as before - only this time he does create undeniable propulsive movement, even if the notes don't seem to be saying much necessarily. ok, then the drummer gotta get some too, that's fine and mercifully brief - there's some delightful messing around in the rest insert during the end unisons, and bang, they're done.
* * *
the actual session was prolonged slightly by the need to check news... for a match, just to make double certain like... by now i realise it's pretty unlikely that "four winds" was played more than once, but still... anyway, yeah, same show.
news from the '70s... every friendly experiencer's home will be enriched by the addition of one of these, assuming you can still find it... (*4) - it is interesting that "winds" was singled out in that way - it's not the clear highlight of the set (certainly not for me) and dave's bass solo is very likely his least interesting of the night; surely the encore... well, but perhaps this was just by way of recognising a beautiful friendship, which spawned a musical association lasting many years, and which saw a nascent band through a whole series of crucial phases. in any case, i can vouch for the fact that taken out of context and/or played on the album, it sounds fine and indeed wraps things up nicely.
* * *
here is the music
(see inside, first comment for details.)
no grading for this, never commercially released - download it and see for yourself... but it's an interesting gig. well... actually it's probably not that interesting, but the quartet plays a blinder anyway. there may be those out there who would wish that the band had always played like this. (and had never split up..? or what?) the set gathers in impetus as it goes on, in terms of confidence in each other at least - for me the peak is simply the encore, comp. 6i which i reckon is as good as the studio version, maybe even better (more democratic, b. still very much hogging solo time on crucial recordings in '71 - though one could hardly blame him for that).
very good free jazz date, then... it remains the case that a small number of very switched-on concertgoers might have justifiably felt that there was something missing... though it's not likely to be the first thing they remember afterwards, sent out into the night with that huge glorious racket echoing in their ears. the question is: was the imminent breakup of the band actually discussed beforehand, or did it only happen after this little tour of europe was over? it seems like a surprisingly conservative set, but did holland in particular have to be eased back in? well, there's another question and here's a third: again, how many gigs did the band play together before this one? i'll be looking for answers to all of them in due course.