Ninetet ( Yoshi's ) 1997, Vol. 2
Release date: 2003/11
|Double CD (audio): GBP 20.00|
|( Collapse liner notes )|
When Leo Records released the first "Yoshi's" set last year, it self generated the inevitable need to bring out Volume 2. The on-going length of the continuous GTM line means that once you start to play it there are only two options, either listen to it or remove yourself immediately from its implications. By getting caught up in the spiral of the parallel dimensions of this music there is a predisposition to go all the way. We talk about it. Leo Feigin promises to post me a draft-disk by the first week of next month. So, here I am, catching up again on Volume 1 while waiting for Volume 2.
Wednesday, 4th June 2003: I arrive back at home and Volume 2 has been delivered neatly packed straight off the master tape. For me it has been a busy day. I'm tired and hungry; I want to lay down in the dark. Before I do I listen straight through Disc 1 (Composition 209) with the sound turned way, way up. The Ninetet are riding out through the night and Yoshi's Club has taken up residency in my living room.
Friday, 6th June 2003: "What on earth is that?!" Today I am conducting a workshop on Social Care Policy. I decide to play "Composition 210" as a prelude to starting the session. Something for the participants to listen to before we get going. "Are you serious? I didn't come to hear this. Do you call that harmony?" "Well, it is certainly a harmony," I reply. Looking around the room, some people are smiling, another guy has that wrinkly look around the bridge of his nose, and yes, some people seem to be concentrating, listening hard. Anthony Braxton always was and has to be a hard listen, especially when you are not expecting to hear him.
Monday, 9th June 2003: In 1997 Anthony Braxton took a nine piece ensemble to Yoshi's Club in Oakland, California. They stayed for six nights, played two sets per night. The gigs went out under the banner of the Ghost Trance Festival. Ostensibly Professor Braxton, from Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, was on the West Coast presenting twelve new compositions neatly numbered 207 to 218. Each time the ensemble stepped up onto the bandstand, they brought a new composition out into the open. The paradox in Anthony Braxton's music is that while the description, 'composition' is correct, it also gradually becomes beside the point. To try to understand and interpret the Braxtonia Ghost Trance Music series in terms of formal composition is to start off down a twisting, turning cul-de-sac which will confusingly lead to a dead end. Such a journey would be a pity, because the whole raison d'Ítre of this music is that there is no end. Sure, this is six nights at Yoshi's, but it could equally be six months, six years, a lifetime, six thousand lifetimes. Yoshi's could be eternity. Book this band forever!
During the Oakland sojourn each set was absolutely compositionally new, because the component parts were never, could never be, played the same way twice. The irony in the eight note repetition pattern of GTM is that seemingly, from out of nowhere, it allows for the non specific introduction of a huge emporium of thematic material to enter the Trance. For decades, such collaging techniques have been present in most of Anthony Braxton's performances. That is why his titles often include brackets detailing additional material to the core text (for example "Composition N. 169 + (186+206+214)" - Leo Records, CD LR 320/321). The fact that the Yoshi's set does not come with a bracket is because the content would be a lifetime's history of innovation long. In a way becomes the way. What is what; the who-plays-which-lick trip is now redundant; recognition of Cole Porter, the Quartet 40 series or Composition 96, all becomes superfluous mind games. Enter the Trance. The important thing is to hear 209 and 210 as a whole. Sure, there is new thematic material present but Anthony Braxton is both a composer and improviser, and to forget the latter is to lose at least half of the Trance. Like a game of chess. (Remember The Professor once hustled the game to earn some money.)
Wednesday, 11th June 2003: I have been listening to these two sets for a week. Driving with them, making quiet moments give up their silence, soundtracking these sets to whatever I am doing. On 209 Kevin Norton for the most part, closes down on drums in favour of marimba, vibraphone and percussion; gliding beaten cymbals into bells. 210 is back to sticks and kit. It seems to me that there is something about this 210 performance that marks it very different to 207 and 208 on Volume 1, and even 209. Listen to the nine-man-morris leap; this is more than drums dividing up the air space. The second set of the evening cracks open as if all frontiers have been dispersed; the eight note rundown is a getaway beyond intention. Nowhere has become somewhere specific. That first flute solo is The Professor in flight, the air across the hole almost changes colour. Later Kevin O'Neil's guitar becomes the catalyst for the six horns to rear up in a huge arc of call and response. Underneath the drums are spreading out the beat as if time has melted in the heat. Now the Ninetet are not an ensemble, they are a bedded-in regular band. The structure of the Ninetet is to switch the pitch into trios. It is relatively easy to hear this process going on, but on 210, nine signs the sound - here is a collectivism rising to the grand occasion.
Friday, 13th June 2003: Friday the 13th, unlucky for some. Thelonious Monk and Keith Tippett have both written tunes celebrating the fact. Tonight sounds like a different day to Wednesday; 209 is truly a new frontier. Around the half way mark the two Kevin's begin sonic waving electric guitar and vibes into an elongated sound stream that rings almost like fusion. Now there's a thought, fusion has become a badly burnt word.
I switch back to 210. Kevin Norton's tight compressed roll reverberates like an activated five finger exercise. Art Blakey without the beat. The name check is no accident, Mr Norton can scene shift the horns from behind a drum kit with that same kind of physical presence inherent in Buhaina's percussion probe. Mr Norton is a mover and shaker whose role and roll shape the fate of the music. If his stir pot of gymnastics with the Ninetet wet your appetite to hear more of his playing in a different context, I recommend listening to the recordings that Anthony Braxton made in May 2000 detailing the music of the pianist, Andrew Hill. These are on the CIMP label. Apart from The Professor, Kevin Norton and Mr O'Neil are the only musicians from the Ninetet involved. In this very different context the drummer can be heard re-scheduling rhythm in a way that is closer to orthodoxy yet, still maintains his trademark angular, off-centre approach to time and motion. In recent years the Norton name has become an important element in Anthony Braxton's music. On the couple of occasions when other percussionists have been used the difference is much greater than merely using alternative personnel. This music does not come from nowhere, always it is out of somewhere, and it is crucial to recognise which 'where' is 'there'. Mr Norton is doing live dates in Canada this summer with Paul Dunmall (saxophones, bagpipes) and Paul Rogers (five string bass), both of whom play in the English improvising ensemble, Mujician. Shame I cannot be there.
Sunday, 15th June 2003: There is a Diamond Clef moment in the final third of 209 where the whole Ninetet are circling invisible notation having taken themselves out of sight of any written thematic material. (Spot it after Mr Norton's rattle interlude.) The bass reeds are in no mood for orthodoxy and leave the top register to contemplate a counterpoint with eight beats. Landing gently is not an option, and not required. This is a transformation of the trance, where air, breath, space, technique, time, ideas and personal histories all coagulate, and then seem to fall away. Out of this collapse of the cradle of dissonance comes an adjusted re-entry of 209's pulse track; the Braxton alto sax and James Fei's bass clarinet vying for the main-frame place in the mix. The way this 'play' is handled is a spontaneous attempt at the impossible; eventually the moment breaks apart leaving failure to feel like a renewable energy resource. At the very end of the 209 performance Anthony Braxton serenades his own instrumental song, the alto horn explicit and elegiac in its eloquence.
Monday, 16th June 2003: I am fascinated by failure. The concept that the pursuit of any kind of perfection eventually results in the attempt crumbling, not necessarily into chaos, but certainly into something less than that which was reached for. Failure becomes a beautiful implosion in the creative act of stretching out to touch beyond the present. Failure is to be cherished, embraced; the inevitability of its presence should be recognised as personal rich pickings. This is not even simply about improvisation, rather a specific act of courage. By definition, it is not possible to complete a continuum, the consequence is that those who set out down that path will fail to find its end. Personal endings will probably be many and varied but, in the scheme of things, never final. Such journey's are the challenge of discovery and why in great art there is always going to be a sacrificial element. Once a shooting star begins soaring across the night sky, casting fire and brimstone into the dark desert of the Earth's atmosphere, it cannot help but burn out. Heat will change into ice. Failure is the whole world. In the end, the ying and the yang of failure and success will finally complete us all.
It is ear re-tuning time. Not really surprising because people these days rarely get to be exposed to a contrabass clarinet solo played against pointalistic soprano and alto reeds. I built my listening on Anthony Braxton's contrabass sax designing real time new music in duets with the deep-end of George Lewis' trombone. Today such genuine dark divide and dance strategies are not common place. Murdock, Marsalis, MTV, and media-ocrity rule, okay. The perceived difficulty with 209 and 210 is to do with the fact that the language has been marginalised, not spoken, not heard, not understood. The problem is not with the language itself but the limited exposure people have to it. The range of music peddled by the corporate airwaves is a very short tatty list; safe bets under bright lights. The iconic rebellion of rock n' roll is now a parody of its own past; the contemporary new music scene, so often reduced to a squeak with a bleeper; worse of all, "jazz" has become throttled by a bow tie tied way too tight. How do you know the Himalayas are beautiful if you never move beyond your own borders?
Wednesday, 18th June 2003: One of Anthony Braxton's more recent Ghost Trance Music projects has involved him sharing horns with yet another multi-reeds specialist, Richard A. McGhee III, using poly-rhythm drumming as a soundboard. The result is a music significantly different to the Yoshi's series. The point of GTM is that it is a process, yet it is not processing. The Trance takes deliberation out of the equation and allows Anthony Braxton to explore all possible routes. 209 and 210 are the definitive article; not because they are perfected pieces of composition, instead they represent specific moments in time given gravitas by nine musicians acting together to sift through the fixtures of music, then re-positioning the component parts so they can no longer be fixed. In my view these Yoshi's gigs are unique. An opportunity to hear one of the great inventors in a context which allows him to flourish during an extended residency. Guys like Joe Fonda, James Fei, Brandon Evans and Jackson Moore are not just pick-up players out for the crack. Here are musicians who have given a commitment to The Professor. I am tempted to say he owes them, but in truth they owe him more. That is how it is when it gets to this level.
Thursday, 19th June 2003: No one writes about Miles Davis and Anthony Braxton together. I will. That "Out of Nowhere" business has been bothering me. This year Leo Records will be releasing, Anthony Braxton, "Solo (Milano) 1979, Vol.1" (Leo/Golden Years GY 20). It features a stripped down version of "Nowhere"; but that is a small part of another story. This Miles file is a deep pile of music. The Professor was at the Knitting Factory, New York in 1994, challenging his own keyboard skills to give up the ghost in his Piano/Quartet. Back then, the leader had Marty Erhlich's alto romping through the original "Milestones", the one by John Lewis that Mr Davis had recorded in 1947, the same year as "Out of Nowhere". The way the Press reported it, this was some Braxton fit of fantasy, out of character, a quirky move. Professor Braxton had played it straight too. Critics do not want to make the association - Miles Davis, the hip Prince of Darkness, alongside the bespeckled avant garde, free form, number crunching composer who came a long way from Chicago. It is true these two musicians did not play together, but history should still recognise a connection.
When Dave Holland and Chick Corea left Miles Davis in the early 1970's they promptly formed Circle with Anthony Braxton (the group's name taken from the title of a Miles Davis tune) and continued to play "Nefertiti" and "No Greater Love" on their one and only European tour, material straight out of the Davis canon. A weird time, Chick Corea could not cope with Mr Braxton any more than he could cope with Miles Davis, or himself for that matter. For Mr Corea one of the problems was this: the Birth of the Cool trumpeter and the Chicago multi-instrumentalist were both contemplating the same long spectrum. The German avant garde composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen resides at one end and the implications of African-American studies at the other. How Miles Davis and Anthony Braxton managed to deal with that big equation manifested itself in very different ways. Yet even in the great divorce between those who plugged in to the funk and those who remained acoustic but went "out", it is possible to hear echoes. The Professor has also periodically returned to the early Miles Davis bandbook, tunes like "Airegin" and "Some Day My Prince Will Come". In 1981 Anthony Braxton could be heard at the Woodstock Jazz Festival jamming on "All Blues" with Pat Metheny and Jack DeJohnette. The evidence piles up. Wayne Shorter, the mainstay of mid-period Miles Davis, has written a whole batch of tunes which at different times Anthony Braxton has used as either complete pieces, or quoted from. Boxing up the Braxton radical experimental agenda without hearing it within the context of the shifting sample of other musics is to deny the ears their due.
Saturday, 21st June 2003: Today I decide to listen again to the 1970 recording of the Miles Davis Band, "Live at The Fillmore West/Black Beauty". Chick Corea and Mr Holland were both present, but it is the then nineteen year old Steve Grossman, exclusively blowing soprano saxophone in-between the crowded cracks, who gets my attention. All of a sudden it strikes me that there is probably a strong Braxton influence. The same pure, thick density, a kind of dry danger which breathes right though the Braxton straight horn. It is not such a strange idea, Mr Grossman was hanging out with Dave Holland and Mr Corea at the time. Anthony Braxton's soprano sax was there to be heard. I do not think it is a coincidence and I wonder why it has taken me thirty years to hear it. Perhaps because Mr Grossman's current tenor sax does not sound anything like The Professor.
So, I ask a red wine-late night question. Does not that famous Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" title, "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down", contain a meaning not very far away from, "Ghost Trance Music"? Listen closely to "Ninetet (Yoshi's) 1997, Vol. 2", you might hear answers. Here's to voodoo, ghost trance your ears.
(1) extract from "The Secret Sound of Shawm" - Steve Day
(2) extract from letter by dramatist Henrik Ibsen to Frederik Hegel (23rd November 1881)