Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CD Review: Anthony Braxton Quintet, Albert Ayler

Anthony Braxton
Quintet (Basel) 1977

Albert Ayler Quartet
Copenhagen Live 1964

Both releases: 
(HAT HUT) www.hathut.com

Hat Hut, the great Swiss label that has been releasing top-notch experimental jazz since God knows when, continues in their hatOLOGY series to bring some older recordings back into the limelight. In addition to these, they've also just released Matthew Shipp's solo performance Invisible Touch at Taktios Zurich.

Quintet (Basel) 1977 is a remarkable piece of Anthony Braxton's history for several reasons. First, as Art Lange indicates in the liner notes, the saxophonist/composer was in a period of fluctuation, having dissolved his first quartet with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and trombonist George Lewis (who had replaced trumpeter Kenny Wheeler). A new quartet was around the corner, but first came this quintet - a set of instruments that Braxton hadn't used much (if at all) up to this point. The real surprise comes from the addition of AACM stalwart Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Lewis returns on trombone, Mark Helias plays bass and Charles "Bobo" Show plays drums. Braxton uses just three of his many reeds: alto and sopranino saxophones and B-flat clarinet.

With small-print CD covers, we miss out on the illustrated titles of Braxton's pieces. But the speakable titles assign four of the five tracks lettered sections of his "Composition 69." "Composition 40 B" closes the set. 

The rapport between the members of the quintet can be felt from the opening moments. Anyone better acquainted with Lewis' computer music and software need to hear him cut loose. In "Composition 69 J" he takes Braxton's ideas and shows he can blow just as wildly, tonguing the notes rather than relying on the slide. The physical part of his playing is on clear display. Abrams follows Lewis with his own aggressive solo.

This isn't all serious music either. After a particularly rabid sopranino solo in "Composition 69 M," a vocal whine sounds like it's offering commentary on Braxton. Actually, it's Lewis again, entering with growl through a mute which surely was meant to evoke some old curmudgeon. 

Further, the quintet doesn't shy away from semi-straight jazz either. "Composition 40 B" begins with a line that feels like sped-up bop. Helias starts walking and inspires a clean solo from Abrams before time eventually slips away, leaving the pianist playing at opposite ends of the keyboard. Along with some great propulsion from Shaw, who passed away in January, Quintet (Basel) 1977 serves as a good entry into the Braxton catalog for newcomers.

In a review last year of Albert Ayler's Bells/Prophecy collection, I also mentioned Vibrations, my favorite Ayler album. I won't rewrite the opinion (that's what the link is for) but I will say that Don Cherry was a big part of it. Seeing the trumpeter's face on the cover of Copenhagen Live: 1964 got me excited to hear the disc. It was only when doing a little research for this review that I discovered I already have this set. The 44-minute performance appeared in the 10-disc Holy Ghost box that came out in 2004. (I also realized that rarely-heard second half of the Prophecy disc also came on Holy Ghost.)

Which is not a condemnation of the set. Presumably a good number of Ayler fans didn't plunk down the dough for that set when it came out. (Mine was not a promo, in case anyone wonders.) So those folks are hereby encouraged to find this disc, which represents one of highest points in the Ayler canon.

Cherry knew how to react, respond and compliment the elements of Ayler's playing - the wide vibrato, the altissimo wails (where the melodies were in full bloom) and the way they delivered his unique compositions. Recorded at Club Montmartre, the six tracks also present elements of Ayler's writing that didn't always come out on other records. (The set draws on all the tracks from Vibrations, with the glaring exception of "Ghosts," which is actually a nice surprise.) Gary Peacock's bass cuts through Sunny Murray's liberated drumming, and the interaction of the bass and horns elevate the impact of the writing.

So the story goes, Cherry drifted away from the Ayler group shortly thereafter, staying in Europe and eventually discovering his taste for world music. It's hard to tell what would have happened had they stayed together. But this session, which is issued on its own for the first time, gives a good taste of what they accomplished during their period together.

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