an open-ended review/overview by henry kuntz


PERFORMANCE OF JUNE 14, 1976 AT KEYSTONE KORNER, SAN FRANCISCO and JUNE 19, 1976 AT THE RAINBOW SIGN, BERKELEY (SET ONE) Roscoe Mitchell / reeds, flute, etc., Lester Bowie / trumpet, flugelhorn, Joseph Jarman / reeds, vibraphone, percussion, Malachi Favors / bass, percussion, Don Moye / drums, percussion.




Frank Lowe / tenor saxophone, Butch Morris / cornet, Wilbur Morris / bass, and drummer (name unknown).




Anthony Braxton / reeds, flute, compositions, Orchestra / Leo Smith, Dave Holland, Phillip Wilson, Kenny Wheeler, Barry Altschul, Karl Berger, George Lewis, Richard Abrams, Frederick Rzewski, Roscoe Mitchell, Richard Teitelbaum, others. Recorded: February 1976.




Derek Bailey / guitar, Evan Parker / tenor and soprano saxophones. Recorded:February 14, 1975.


BALANCE Incus 11

Ian Brighton / guitar, Radu Malfatti / trombone, Phillip Wachsman / violin, Frank Perry / percussion, Colin Wood / cello (two tracks).Recorded: September 10, 11, 1973.


TEATIME Incus 15 Gary Todd / tenor saxophone (side 2 only), Dave Soloman / percussion, John Russell / guitars, Nigel Coombes / violin and low-grade electronics, Steve Beresford / piano and toys. Recorded: August 1974, April 1975.




Hans Reichel / homemade 11-string guitar (with 3 pick-ups). Recorded: April till June 1973.



FMP 0280

Hans Reichel / 12-string electric stick guitar.

Recorded: October 1975.



Parachute P-OOl

Eugene Chadbourne / 6 & 12-string guitars, prepared fretless 12-string guitar. Recorded: November 12, 13, 1975.

Through its short history, jazz has been a music based more on exploration within prevailing forms than on formal exploration as such. Certain forms (bop, swing, “New Orleans” style) define whole periods of the music; and although the linear view of jazz history that stems from this type of categorization is not entirely correct, it seems true to say that the majority of musicians playing at any particular time worked within generally acknowledged and accepted structural frameworks. How else explain, for example, the widespread resistance to bop which was nothing other than a formal differentiation and advance?

In the Sixties this began to change. Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were among the first to subvert the reigning bop orthodoxy, but an entire period of music based on their respective stylistic approaches did not happen. Others used and built on their innovations, but different aesthetic choices were made. One would never have mistaken Ayler’s music for Shepp’s or Coltrane’s for Coleman’s. The whole sense and feeling of each of their musics was different. Formally, what united the music of the Sixties was the adherence to the notion of a collectively improvised music and the desire to break as far away as possible from western musical concepts. Form in general was pushed to the breaking point, and new sound producing techniques were applied to nearly every instrument.


The Art Ensemble of Chicago

In the late Sixties in Chicago, a music began to be built around the co-existence of various formal approaches. In the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the music not only spanned a range of contemporary structural “solutions,” but moved freely in time and space to encompass the entire spectrum of black music. In its earliest manifestation (Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2 or Mitchell’s Congliptious), something like a true synthesis of elements took place. A surrealistic open-ended textural construction emerged that transcended all of its points of reference to be one of the most sophisticated and far ranging black improvisational musics yet created. There is a great feeling of spontaneity in this music, of experiment, of something new “found.”

Hearing the Art Ensemble in concert recently and as far back as a year and a half ago (at Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley), there is a sense that this has changed somewhat. Most noticeable is that the music has become more an (in retrospect, linear) series of events that involves several different stylistic approaches rather than an essentially non-linear construct that might include any or all of those elements. Thus, their opening set at Keystone Korner included African percussion sections, “free” sections, a humorous Reggae segment, and a boppish ending. Several of the sections were connected in that they demonstrated different uses of musical repetition; and even one of the “free” sections utilized a high-energy repetitive substructure shifting between two of the three horns while the others played on top.

Their set at The Rainbow Sign was more like the Art Ensemble of old, with a good deal more textural development and some very fine playing from everyone (including one extraordinary solo by Lester Bowie), but one still had the feeling of a somewhat calculated music, one designed more for its dramatic effect than for mainly exploratory purposes. It is not, of course, that the Art Ensemble’s music has ceased to be of interest, but it is not now as free or open-ended a creation as it once was. What seems to have happened is that with the realization that various forms could co-exist without destroying the music’s integrity, the next step was to explore those forms in greater depth. And here one begins to see the Art Ensemble’s influence on much of the music of the Seventies. For formal diversity is something that many artists now take for granted.


Frank Lowe

Frank Lowe’s half-hour set at the South Berkeley Community Church contained Ayleresque flights, an Ellington-styled tenor section, Coleman-like bop themes, and Lowe’s own rasping, growling saxophone. It was an intensely played music, by no means negligible, but it was as much an investigation of forms and the way they could work together as it was of improvisational substance. Through it all, Lowe was very much in charge of his only recently put together quartet, shouting directions and occasionally pointing to whoever was meant to do what. Only he himself took very long solos and that seemed best, considering the amount of coherence he wanted and the fact that the group was unused to playing together.

This recognition of the possibility of using many different forms within which to improvise is one that is as fundamentally different from the state of the music in the past as it is now widespread. In the Sixties, different formal approaches emerged alongside of each other, but it was similar to the music of the past in that the most important artists pretty much worked only within one aesthetic construct – that being their own; and it was within those single structures that their improvisatory powers grew and took shape.

Now, however, many artists work within various conceptual frameworks. And much of the improvised music of the Seventies, at least that largely rooted in the black experience, is to some degree, conceptual music, certainly much more so than it has ever been in the past. This is apparent on listening to any number of recently released recordings: Oliver Lake’s Heavy Spirits, Julius Hemphill’s ‘Coon Bid’ness, Frank Lowe’s Fresh, Lester Bowie’s Fast Last, Don Pullen’s Solo album, Richard Abram’s Things To Come From Those Now Gone, Dewey Redman’s records, and so on.


In an extreme form, this can be heard in Anthony Braxton’s music, his work being less a traditionally oriented or hindward looking eclecticism than a contemporary exploration of strictly musical structural possibilities. (And if there is any truth to the assertion that Barry Tepperman makes elsewhere that Braxton is bringing a new “universality” to the black musical heritage, I imagine it must lie in this.) This aspect of Braxton’s work can be heard most clearly on his latest, and most ambitious, Arista release, Creative Orchestra Music. Other than to indicate its significance, it isn’t necessary to attempt any aesthetic dissection of the music because Braxton’s own structural notations are included on the inner sleeve. What is here, though, are six pieces: two open-ended compositions (one concerned with space and texture, the other with opposite combinations of instruments), a somewhat traditionally constructed piece (rotating points of instrumental reference), a piece for marching band, a piece dealing with weight shifts and attacks, and a composition inspired by Duke Ellington that utilizes in part repetition factors. One can see that Braxton is less concerned with “style” as such than with musical “systems.” Even his most traditionally conceived pieces function that way; that is, they point to musical possibilities that transcend their necessarily constricted stylistic contexts.

Most interesting to me about Braxton is the manner in which these concerns have come to inform his improvisations in less strictly controlled situations. As is apparent on the records with Derek Bailey (Emanem Records) or as was especially evident in his recent Keystone Korner appearances (reviewed elsewhere), various structural devices (around which whole pieces of his are concerned) pop up all over the place. So that more than anyone else at this time, Braxton seems to have integrated his more directly conceptual concerns into his improvisations, thus showing the manner in which the two can be mutually instructive.

But while for the music as a whole the effect of the expansion of formal devices has increased the possibilities for diversity and creativity in improvised music, a very real element of conservatism has set in – at least temporarily. Musical situations now tend to be more controlled, there is less concern in general with collective improvisation, and there is less instrumental exploration – this in spite of the fact that some important music has been made.

But the extension of form was only one implication of the music of the last decade. The other was the transcendence of form entirely, or at least of its “given-ness.” In the Sixties, some music of this sort was made in Chicago, and Leo Smith and Marion Brown worked together in this manner for a time; and Sam Rivers frequently works like this now. But, generally speaking, this type of exploration has been confined to European, mainly English, improvisers.


Derek Bailey

In England especially a whole new improvisational language has evolved to accommodate the open-endedness (vertical and horizontal) and desired collective result of this freely improvised creation. Derek Bailey’s work exemplifies this, at least in part because of the widely expressive range he has developed on his instrument (though it seems only fair to point out that Bailey’s stylings may well be at least part the result of the collective evolution of the work of several players which might include, among others, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker).

Bailey’s most immediately apparent contribution, however, was to remove the guitar from its association with the piano and, by implication, from a whole history of tonal music. Further, through the extensions of timbre, harmonic possibilities, new string techniques, et al., Bailey has made the fullest application of what might be referred to as “post-Webern” sound conceptions to a single instrument – but with a greater rhythmic emphasis, without the strictures of serialism, and with the ability (as Peter Riley has enumerated) to incorporate broad cultural references. Already, as noted before, the co-existence of various stylistic devices within a single piece had been pursued in some depth by the Chicagoans. But in Bailey’s work, the references are frequently fleeting, there only for the moment; so that they may come to occupy the same space within a “line” itself. Further, because of the largely independent nature of each sound, Bailey has all but destroyed traditional ideas of context and direction. Any movement is relative only to itself; tempo has become more the function of the duration of any single sound or space rather than an overall point (or points) of reference and source of structural unity. Rhythm can be heard at an extremely basic level, that of the perception of the interaction of sound (the creation of tension in an interval through the variation of pitch, attack, timbre, duration, dynamics) at any given moment.

nommo.jpgClearly, ideas of this sort are suggested in the work of other improvisers: Roscoe Mitchell (hear, for example, his solo on “CD-4 P FK-B” on Creative Orchestra Music). Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Don Pullen (hear his work on Nommo, SRP Records, especially), Cecil Taylor, and others; but Bailey’s more full-blown (compressed) extensions of them are the most radical yet put forth. Bailey’s playing on The London Concert (see Jack Cooke’s concert review) has an unusually aggressive quality about it, and whereas on the records with Braxton, he plays around and about Braxton’s work, filling in space between Braxton’s lines, he largely plays with Evan Parker. Here, too, he tends to go between his own lines, and if he doesn’t cover all of the technical ground that he does with Braxton, his work takes on a different (perhaps more highly defined) type of virtuosity, one certainly hinted at before but not previously heard on record.

lyttonliveattheunitytheatre.jpgParker’s work, of course, differs considerably from Braxton’s. While Braxton works through a sound scale of six instruments shuttling about various structural possibilities, Parker approaches his two instruments more as ends in themselves. And he has undertaken a more thoroughgoing re examination of his instruments as instruments than any player has done since Albert Ayler. So whereas Braxton works by implication, by suggestion, by circumvention, Parker’s playing is extremely direct, almost immediately transcending all conceptual considerations. It is, of course, conceptual, but it is a dense expression, tending to pile sound on top of sound, closer to the “structures within a structure” of Bailey than to the wide-ranging structural diversity of Braxton. This (and his playing on the recently released album with Paul Lytton, Live at the Unity Theatre, Incus 14) is among his most important work on record.

Balance and Teatime are recordings by “second generation” English improvisers. Both albums are important for their specific contributions, though Balance is closer conceptually to the earlier recorded Iskra 1903 (Incus 3 & 4), both in its rhythmic feel and in its manner of dependence on the interaction of the instruments for its movement. In that, it seems closer to the 1970 Iskra (Incus 3) but this is a matter of degree. Even so, it is a valid extension of/addition to those ideas. It has a busier surface, a harder percussive sound (generated in good part by Frank Perry), and a greater blend (in the use of the guitar and violin together especially) of the total sound produced. Also, though this is still a probing music, there is more a feeling of assuredness about it, of mastery of the concepts involved. At least, all that is true of side one of the album. Side two is something of a mixed bag: a bit of a sense of the above alternated with sections of a kind of free “mood music.”


Frank Perry

Teatime is a more original music and one that takes little about itself very seriously. It’s a frenetic sound circus, highly percussive at times, that extends certain of the earlier English conceptions into areas more controlled by strictly rhythmic emphases and contrasts. This is as opposed to emphases built more around timbral differentiation and a wide latitude of sound choice. (These ideas are also suggested by Paul Lytton’s work on Incus 14 and by some of Han Bennink’s work.) Also, different from Balance, it begins to explore the possibilities of a thicker-textured music, but still leaving space for the humorous and the absurd. It’s, in fact, a music built almost entirely around the tangents it is continually going off on, which means that all that has been written above is only partly true, or at least it is true only at certain times. Still, this is probably the most far-reaching “humorous” music yet made, more radical, say, than Brotzmann’s work in this area which, though important, is much more rooted in the language of a decade ago. Here, in fact, the times when the music breaks down are mainly those times (side two) when Gary Todd is featured on saxophone. For Todd’s stance (like a time gone by) is a bit too heavy-handed and without quite enough internal disorder to suit this group’s purposes. It’s hard to say how widely applicable are Teatime’s efforts at aesthetic self-caricature or how far they can go before becoming cliché, but they work well here most of the time.

The Reichel and Chadbourne albums show some recent effects of Derek Bailey’s influence, but there are considerable differences between Bailey’s music and that of Reichel and Chadbourne. On Wichlinghauser Blues, Reichel’s most important statement, several of the pieces seem built around specific kinds of sound production that Reichel has adapted to his homemade 11-string instrument. (One rather extreme example is Reichel “shaving” his guitar with an electric razor.) So to that extent it’s a fairly conceptual music, different from Bailey’s which is entirely oriented to the process of playing itself, with that being its own end. Also, Reichel’s work, though it could not always be referred to as “tonal,” is certainly tonal in inclination, with a good bit of dissonance and special effects (and a lot of twanginess) thrown in on the side. Wichlinghauser Blues is a record of at least some significance, however, as it suggests other yet-to-be-fully-explored avenues for the guitar. On Bonobo, Reichel’s work is quite a bit less adventuresome. Here the more radical aspects of his style give way to a largely song-oriented approach (heard in part on Wichlinghauser Blues), again with a good deal of dissonance but with fewer jarring effects and with much less interesting phrasing overall.


Hans Reichel

Chadbourne also brings a good deal of conceptualization to his work and in fact considers himself as much a composer as an improviser. But his approach is closer to that of Braxton in that the pieces are more directed toward the working out of specific musical problems. Like Reichel’s, it also tends to be a tonally inclined music, though at times (as on the “Introduction” to “Music for Mr. ANthony Braxton”), he seems to be working in areas more similar to Derek Bailey (closer to Bailey’s earlier music, especially in its limited harmonic usage). Throughout, Chadbourne plays with a great deal of urgency; and although one or two of the pieces (“Misty,” “Love”) are not quite in a class with the rest, his first album is a welcome contribution.

What all of the above indicates is that there are two general directions in which improvisational music is now moving. One is the extension of the music’s formal bounds (in its extreme form, having to do with musical “systems”) and the other is the turning away from form entirely (as pre-determined point of reference) and the affirmation of process. There should probably not be any absolute ideologies about which of these directions is most worth pursuing (although that is a real question for any artist), for the results may be good or bad in either case, and what aesthetic decisions were made in producing them takes on importance only in relation to what those might be. For the moment, though, it must be said that much of the music’s new formal orientation has gotten in the way of its experimental impulse, and that impulse now surfaces more frequently in the music based on total improvisation.

Henry Kuntz, 1976


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