Friday, August 31, 2007

One Year On

I just realized that I started this blog in August 2006, so I am now a blogger with one year's experience. Perhaps some taking stock is in order, but I feel no desire to write some kind of tedious retrospective. Recently endings seem to have been more common than continuings - as well as the deaths of Art Davis, Paul Rutherford and Max Roach I recently read on the I Hate Music messageboard of the death of jazz writer Richard Cook at the tragically young age of 50. I certainly did not agree with all of his judgements but he was an excellent, literate and thoughtful critic of the music, and through his work both for the Penguin Guide to Jazz and the Wire had a big hand in helping me to gain my initial bearings in the music. I have also, not consciously intentionally, been listening to music with an elegaic strain (just before hearing of Art Davis' death I finally got hold of a copy of John Tilbury and Keith Rowe's powerful album Duos for Doris, dedicated to Tilbury's then recently deceased mother) and reading about death (in the form of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's engrossing and disturbing take on the Jack the Ripper murders, From Hell). And, while not wanting to make this sound either portentous or pretentious, my first experience last Sunday of a really bad back (of the unable to get up out of bed kind of bad) has, I hope, made me a little less cavalierly unaware of physical frailty than usual.

I don't want to, or feel able to, draw any conclusions from all this. But it does somehow make the exciting new music I have been listening to seem all the more vibrant. This music has included a lot of largish ensemble improvising - the fORCH album spin networks and the Anthony Braxton 12+1tet nine CD plus DVD (!) box set 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006. The fORCH set is in every way utterly remarkable; two CDs of music in impeccable sound, beautifully sequenced, and featuring utterly individual improvisers (Richard Barrett, Paul Obermayer, John Butcher, Rhodri Davies, Paul Lovens, Phil Minton, Wolfgang Mitterer and Ute Wasserman) creating a wholly original group music; where instrumental, vocal, electronic, and electroacoustic means of producing sounds combine to form an alien and in some ways abstract music that is somehow at the same time rattlingly physical, embodied and rhythmically aware. Highlights include the two 'fOKT' half-hour semi-scored pieces for the whole ensemble, an astonishingly fragile yet alarming duo of Davies and Wasserman, and a ferociously scatalogical trio between Minton and FURT (Barrett and Obermayer). I realize this reads as a bit of gush rather than an evaluation, but this is stunning music. Philip Clark's somewhat lukewarm review in the latest issue of the Wire is a mystery to me. The Braxton set I am not qualified to comment on fully, only having watched the DVD (brilliantly edited, and would only have been improved, I feel, through having interviews with the other ensemble members as well as Braxton himself) and listened to the first CD once. I admit to a small amount of skepticism at the thought of yet another extensive piece of Braxton documentation; would Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard have been a better record if it had been an 8-LP set? So I will report back when I get to the end, but I have to say that the first CD is utterly enthralling. In a manner somewhat analogous to much of Cecil Taylor's work, the music has a certain consistency of surface to it - in terms of note density, at least, which tends to be fairly high. Beyond this however, the variation of groups and subgroups within the ensemble; of dynamics; of timbre and colour; of rhythmic and melodic complexity or simplicity is enormous. Particularly fascinating are some of the backing figures cued in by various members of the band, which give the music a really perceptible foreground and background while still keeping an improvised openness and unpredictability at all times - something very rare for improvising ensembles of this size. I have not been so compelled on first listening to a large group recording (apart from fORCH, mentioned above) since I first heard the 1988 recording of Cecil Taylor's European Orchestra, Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) last year.

Music: worth living for.

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