Tag Archives: Anthony Braxton

“A HEAVEN ON EARTH TO SHARE”: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI / MICHAEL KANAN at THE DRAWING ROOM (February 8, 2015)

What follows captures one of those magic times when the song, the title, the performance, and the performers can all be described in the same phrase.

SO RARE

The song, to many of us, is associated forever with Jimmy Dorsey — his last hit –but it was a pop hit in 1937.

SO RARE 45

The simple melody line has made it adaptable to all kinds of improvisers: there is an airshot by the Benny Goodman trio when it was new, and later performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Mose Allison, Anthony Braxton, and the duo of Jimmie Rowles and Joe Pass.

But I submit that the version that is now forever in my mind and heart is this one, created by Gabrielle Stravelli and Michael Kanan on February 8 of this year at The Drawing Room, 56 Willoughby Street, in Brooklyn.

Gabrielle introduces it in a touching, light-hearted way (while Michael plays gorgeously behind her) and then transforms the song.  No longer simply a piece of nostalgia, it becomes the most warm expression of happy praise and exultant joy from one lover to another.  Love never ages:

Isn’t that marvelous?  The dark beauty of Gabrielle’s voice, moving from the casually spoken to the eloquently full-throated, and the moving subtleties Michael always creates.  And that steady sweet patient tempo.

I offer another masterpiece from that evening — and there were many — here.

I propose that music like this — delicate, haunting, elegant, deep — is indeed so rare.

And I send thanks to Gabrielle’s parents.

May your happiness increase!

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ESCAPING THE BOX

William Carlos Williams: “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet—gosh, how I hate sonnets—is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab any more.”

Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Younger, I would have sided with Frost: too much freedom leads to chaos. But I celebrate Williams’ position (even though his metaphor makes me wince) more as I age, feel, and listen.  Tidiness is a wonderful thing in the kitchen cabinets, but it might lead to the slow death of creative improvising.

In that spirit, I present the latest works of saxophonist / composer / historian / scholar / seeker Allen Lowe, a four-CD set of original compositions with one exception, a spoken-word piece by the novelist Rick Moody.

field recordings cover bc

JAZZ LIVES readers will be familiar with many of the names on that cover; others will provide engaging and sometimes quizzical surprises in listening and emotion.

Lowe’s works don’t seek to present snapshots of particular eras; they don’t offer “styles or schools.” Rather, his imaginations are intense, deep, yet unfettered. FIELD RECORDINGS, Lowe says in his liner notes, grew out of an argument he had with Wnton Marsalis — during Lowe’s attempt to interview Marsalis.  Disagreeing about “minstrelsy,” Marsalis characterized Lowe — in Lowe’s words — as “merely another in a long line of deluded white academics.”

Lowe spent the next six years immersing himself in “early entertainments of every racial persuasion,” which led him to compositions — song forms — that reflected what he had heard and experienced.  He also plays and improvises on many of these performances heard in this CD set.  More details here.

Lowe writes, “There is a tradition in certain kinds of writing in which the writer takes past works and puts them to his own use for very specific philosophical and artistic reasons. Brecht called this copien, as in the use of older texts as a means to something new and different, as a method from which to challenge prior ideas and forms. This project was done in exactly this spirit, as a way of altering certain received ideas of popular and jazz song. It is also a challenge to certain formal and intellectual assumptions.”

I haven’t heard more than one quarter of the set, but found the music so inspiring that I wanted to spread the word about it.   The performances weren’t always easy to listen to — Lowe, as composer and player, doesn’t shy away from improvisation’s rough edges, but he doesn’t run into harshness for its own sake.

What I appreciate most about the music — I was listening both with and without the benefit of Lowe’s commentaries — was its depth of feeling and innate ability to surprise.  The surprises weren’t ones I could predict (I know that sounds like an illogical paradox, but listening to many of the great musicians, I feel I know “where (s)he might be going” in the next chorus).

Rather, I felt the ground shifting under me in the best sense of the metaphor. Over and over, I felt beautifully startled, gently lifted out of my expectations and planted somewhere else, experiencing the sounds from a different perspective.  Each voyage was a fascinating series of what Emerson calls “zig-zag tacks.”  I heard echoes of New Orleans polyphony and street parade, dark unrequited blues, ensemble questing that echoed Mingus and freer improvsations, with searching, winding melodic lines, unpredictable harmonies that felt good as soon as they found my ears.

Language has a hard time describing music in the best of circumstances, and words are particularly inadequate here. One must be a creative listener to feel Lowe’s many musics, but they are well worth the investigation.  He is honest, inquiring, and sly — as is his work on these four CDs.  But beware!  This set is not ear-cushioning, to be listened to in conjunction with household chores, nor is it meant to be heard as one hears some discs: seventy-five minutes of supple protection from the world.  I predict that the listener wise and brave enough to purchase the FIELD RECORDINGS will approach the music as one does a new book of poems: a poem or two at a time, rather than as an artistic devouring of it all.

As a measure of the breadth and often witty depths of Lowe’s imagination, I would list some of the names he calls in his notes and compositions: Bunk Johnson, Tony Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Ernest Hogan, Mantan Moreland, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Lennie Tristano, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Thelonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Varese, Dave Schildkraut, Bud Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Melrose, Paul Whiteman, Bill Challis, Harry Barris, George Bacquet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James P. Johnson, Albert Ayler, Ran Blake, Henry Mancini, Sun Ra, Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Daily, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Bill Triglia, George Gershwin, Frank Teschemacher, Jess Stacy, Bix Beiderbecke, Arizona Dranes, Bert Williams, George Wheeler, Barbara Payne, Clyde Bernhardt, Ma Rainey, Anthony Braxton, Joe Jordan, Jaki Byard, Fess Manetta, Lester Young, Duke Ellington . . . and more.

The curious — and I hope there are many — will listen to samples here and then plunge in — this set costs less than two CDs and is wonderfully lively. You can also learn more at Allen’s website and blog (called EVERYTHING ELSE IS POST MODERNISM) — where Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Norman Mailer, compelled to share a subway seat, eye each other with suspicion.

I admire Allen Lowe’s courage, range, and audacities. The music is often, on first hearing, “weird,” but that’s a compliment. A little weirdness is like good seasoning: so much missed in the music we are sold, so richly enhancing in the right proportions.

And to return to the austere Robert Frost.  My letter to him, unsent and unread, is as follows:Dear Mr. Frost. If you removed the net, you might not have tennis, but you certainly would have an engaging dance.”

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.