Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Contrarian View of Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E

From a music writer’s perspective, the question of how to approach Anthony Braxton’s recent four-disc opera, Trillium E begins with whether or not to cover it at all. Consider: it came out at the very end of last year (on the Firehouse 12 label), meaning that a large percentage if not all of its intended customers have already acquired it. It’s a massive achievement, over three hours of music, five if you count the avant garde jazz titan’s intended hourlong pre- and post-performance processionals. Innumerable, less challenging – at least in terms of sheer time – Braxton works exist which deliver his signature blend of wondrously defamiliarizing harmonies and rigorously cerebral thought. Yet Braxton is one of those artists whose cult grows every year, as another senior jazz performance class initiates a small but trustworthy percentage of the freshmen with something of a secret handshake: “Of course you know Albert Ayler..but do you know Braxton?” So in light of that consideration, a work of this magnitude from such an important composer demands some kind of examination, critical or not.

Some will take this as utter hubris, but this is an album whose zeniths are as exquisite as its nadirs are maddening. The 45-piece Tri-Centric Orchestra is the star of the show. Braxton’s close harmonies, use of microtones, melismas and minute rhythmic shifts make demands that few composers can or dare ask of performers, yet this ensemble pulls them off singlemindedly: very frequently throughout the piece, it’s as if it’s one mighty, majestic voice. The music is more horizontal than rhythmic, nebulously floating banks of sound with understatedly dramatic low/high contrasts, and throughout much of Act I, momentary, flitting motifs filtering through the murk with an intriguing, enigmatic dubwise effect similar to backward masking. The high woodwinds get more lively at the beginning of Act II, followed by long, slowly oscillating, rivetingly otherworldly tones leading into an absolutely luscious segment where Braxton explores the kind of creepily lush, jarringly rhythmic things you can do with a choir, taking a page out of Pauline Oliveros – or Jeff Lynne – both of whom were doing the same thing back in the 70s. Act III adds roughhewn string motifs and simple, vivid battering-ram percussion and a brief but chilling reprise of the creepy groupthink vocalese of Act II: the wavering, pitchy alien mantra “I am here and you are not” delivers a visceral chill.

This album is maddening because it’s an opera, pure and simple. Here’s a radical idea (something Braxton knows well) – eliminate the libretto. That’s right – 86 the vocals. That’s not to say that its rather academically worded existential philosophy isn’t worth considering, or that the sci-fi narrative’s heavy foreshadowing doesn’t maintain interest, or that it isn’t imbued with Braxton’s signature dry, ironic humor, only that there are parts where he actually seems to be mocking the art form itself. And the lyrics themselves, such as they are, hardly lend themselves to being sung. Here’s a random sample:

Bubba John Jack/Herald: I’m thinking more in the way of my own complete set of baseball cards – something more from the forties/fifties vintage series.

Zakko/Arfthro: You can’t be serious.

This also isn’t to belittle the singers, notably coloratura soprano Kamala Sankaram and mighty bass Michael Douglas Jones, who along with most of the rest of the cast do their best to bring some kind of cantabile phrasing to Braxton’s plainspoken, singsongey vocal melodies. But as the opera goes on, the singers veer in and out of voice to the point where they’re practically speaking – as perhaps they should. Consider: the bel canto style came to prominence in a language defined by its fluid, polysyllabic vowels. In general, the technique doesn’t translate well to the clipped sibilances of American English, and this opera is a prime example. Braxton has said that the style is well suited to putting his point across, and he’s just plain wrong. Since he imagines the work taking on many possible adaptations – for shadow puppet theatre, for example, an especially appealing proposition – then why not hip-hop? Or simply spoken word? Or…as a purely symphonic work. Orchestras worldwide have been doing instrumental interpretations of opera practically since it first existed, which ultimately may be the fate best suited to this perplexing, complicated, flawed yet often unearthly beautiful piece of music.

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August 2, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bass and Vocals Like Never Before

Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser’s Synastry album came out this past August on the enterprising Pi Records label, and it’s a stealth contender for best jazz album of 2011. Both artists have worked the outer margins of jazz under the lights, Shyu with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Dresser with innumerable others, most famously Anthony Braxton (who’s got a new opera in the can – watch this space). Shyu’s claim to fame is that she mingles her languages (along with her native English, she speaks many others from both Europe and Asia) into a style of vocalese where she’ll drop actual words or phrases in if she sees fit. And when she does this, she sings in what appears to be perfect accent, a difficult task that literally stretches her ability to turn a phrase and is one of the reasons why she is such a distinctive vocalist. Few other singers in jazz, or for that matter any other style of music, are as unselfconsciously graceful as Jen Shyu, whether dipping gently for a throaty blue note or flying high, clear and unadorned, employing timbres that seldom occur in western music. Dresser’s fondness for utilizing the entire sonic spectrum that can be conjured from a bass makes him a perfect complement to the vocals here, providing some striking textural contrasts, but also some unexpectedly fascinating harmonies further up the scale: the two make a good team. Unsurprisingly, on this album, they share composition credits on every track, and a commitment to melody that’s unusual for artists who can be at home as far outside as these two can go. And as much as Shyu’s style gravitates toward the bracing and otherworldly, they cover a surprising expanse of emotional terrain.

The opening track, Slope a Dope, sets the tone for most of what’s to come: Dresser works a methodically propulsive, deceptively simple, in this case circular groove as Shyu casually vocalises a warmly bossa-flavored, buoyant melody over it. A simple, modal theme that Dresser stakes out incisively gives Shyu the chance to color the following track much more brightly than its title, Quietness of Memory – Recovery, would suggest. The third cut, Mauger has Shyu reaching for a sometimes whispery insistence as Dresser alternates between a hypnotic bounce and a tersely exploratory attack before they join forces and go off animatedly in a more tropical direction.

The title track is the most traditionally free piece here. Shyu leans toward a pensive torchiness while Dresser plays it very spacious, minimalist and tongue-in-cheek, taking out his bow between beats for textures that range from ghostly to abrasive. Floods, Flame, Blades takes on a slinkily anthemic, remotely Brazilian feel, rather than a direct evocation of any of the title’s menaces, while Mattress on a Stick is a funny song, Shyu airing out her upper register and stream-of-consciousness over Dresser’s overtone-drenched, rhythmic bowed chords. By contrast, Chant for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a tribute to the Korean-American novelist/performance artist who was murdered at age 30, is understatedly apprehensive. It’s pretty rubato for a chant, and the most overtly avant piece here. Dresser shadows her rhythmically as Shyu works outward and around a central octave motif a la Amy X Neuburg.

The rest of the album reaches back for bits and pieces of tradition as it follows an individualistic tangent. Lunation is just plain hilarious – Shyu gets going with some very clever “-ation” rhymes before a double entendre that will have you keeling over. Kind of Nine has hints of Bollywood over a staggered groove and Shyu’s trademark mishmash of phonemes, while Telemotion alludes to a swaying blues ambience but deliberately never gets past first base (almost said “first bass”…this is the kind of album that’ll do that to you). The duo close on a wary note with Night Thoughts, driven by Dresser’s dark chords. Imagine what Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus might have been able to pull off had he lived, and you get a sense of what Shyu and Dresser have done here.

November 30, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber: Making Love to the Dark Ages

Believe it or not, this is the tenth album by sprawling avant-jazz megaplex Burnt Sugar. Conceived in 1999 by former Village Voice critic and author Greg Tate as a continuation of what Miles Davis was doing circa Bitches Brew – although they’re a lot closer to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or some of Sun Ra’s deeper-space explorations – Burnt Sugar quickly earned a following both for their epic, atmospheric live performances, and because there were so many people in the band. The full contingent numbers over fifty, including bass star Jared Nickerson (a Tammy Faye Starlite alum), noted jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and baritone sax goddess Paula Henderson of Moisturizer (who also leads a miniature version of the band playfully called Moist Sugar). While the Arkestra Chamber is also a smaller version of the group, the soundscapes on this album are no less vast for the contributions of a couple dozen fewer players. Because of the band’s deliberately improvisatory nature, don’t expect to be able to hear any of the songs on the cd in concert: this is simply the group on a good night when everybody was feeling what they were. Which was good, and always seems to be the case – this cd is nothing if not fun.

With so many people in the band, how do they hold it together? Typically, by throwing chord changes out the window. In place of traditional Western melodic tropes, the band substitutes innumerable dynamic shifts, subtle variations in tempo, parts rising and slowly sinking out of a massive wash of sound. The effect is supremely psychedelic, even trance-inducing. Most of the tracks segue into each other: to go so far as giving them each a name is a bit of a stretch. The opening cut Chains and Water is a long, three-part suite, a typical one-chord jam spiced early on with sax and blues harp solos and an infrequent vocal. The production goes dubwise at the end, whistles and other various disembodied textures floating through the mix, horn charts rising and falling. Part two gets all chaotic, swirling around a repetitive syncopated single-note riff by the massive horn section, finally brought out of the morass on the wings of a nasty, darkly bluesy guitar solo and finally, the hint of a hook, a four-note descending bassline.

Thorazine/Eighty One fades up, anything but a downer layered over a dark, circular bass motif, eventually slowing way down to a long coda, then building skeletal from there with screechy sax and everybody nonchalantly floundering around. Love to Tical is a boisterous funk jam, predictably crescendoing to a searing, spacy guitar solo, then to soprano sax, a chorus of women chanting “feel, feel, feel” distant in the background. From there they segue into Dominata, which gets considerably quieter, layers of cloudy horns over tinkly piano with a bass blip or two.

But just when you think that’s all there is to this group, they hit you upside the head with the fiery title track in all its searing, violin-driven, Middle Eastern-inflected majesty. Like the rest of the tracks here, it’s an epic and it’s worth your investment as the suite morphs into raw, noir trip-hop menace and then into buoyant loungey atmospherics. A smartly chosen number to end a good late-night headphone album on a high note.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment