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London Jazz Festival: No Compromises

John Sharpe By

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There never seemed to be less than two compositions being played at once, even when someone was soloing.
November 15, 2004

The Royal Festival Hall played host to a double bill to die for, as part of the London Jazz Festival, featuring innovators who came to prominence at opposite ends of the '60s. Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon were both part of the 1964 October Revolution in Jazz, while Anthony Braxton emerged from Chicago's AACM at the end of the decade. All these musicians (including England's Tony Oxley, who partners Taylor and Dixon) have developed their own styles - to the extent that their music demands to be judged on its own terms - and their playing is instantly identifiable. There have been no compromises, but while Braxton continues to forge ahead, the elder statesmen provided fewer surprises. Both sets were recorded by BBC Radio 3, so you will be able to make up your own minds.

Anthony Braxton Quintet

Anthony Braxton led his youthful quintet onto the stage, wearing black cardigan and trousers, but I needn't have worried, his music has not mellowed with age. The group consisted of Braxton on alto, soprano, sopranino and C melody saxophone, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, trumpet, trombone and conch, Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, Mary Halvorson on electric guitar, and Chris Dahlgren on acoustic bass and electronics.

The quintet shot out of the starting gate with unison sax and trumpet in long convoluted skeins over rhythmic punctuations, read intently from a score. Braxton launched into a saxophone solo, while the trumpet negotiated the tricky opening lines. Though the music has gone beyond Braxton's Ghost Trance Musics of the later 1990s, it is no less complex or challenging, encompassing unison themes, more space and silence than hitherto, and a constant ebbing and flowing as the focus shifts around the group and moves from one piece seamlessly into the next.

From the outset it was clear that this was not going to be your conventional jazz quintet or one of Braxton's standards groups. Takeishi used a very unconventional kit - no trap drums, but several drum heads, one cymbal, one large frame drum and numerous different sized percussion devices. He sat cross-legged on a slightly raised dais, playing patterns on his tuned drums with sticks, mallets and brushes. Whether or not the absence of a conventional drum kit explained the lack of a pulse, there was no rhythmic thread to hang onto - this was almost chamber music, albeit with attention deficit disorder and attitude.

Nonetheless, Braxton was always in control, using his fingers to count out prearranged signals, cueing in the other musicians in duos or trios. There was continual intense reading from scores and sorting between sheets of music, often following signals from Braxton, but sometimes spontaneously. There never seemed to be less than two compositions being played at once, even when someone was soloing. While one musician was cutting loose, another duo was cued in on convoluted unison lines on trumpet and guitar or bass and drums or sax and drums. There were several fiery interludes with Braxton burning on his saxophones over roiling bass and percussion - only to subside as quickly as they arose, and leaving Braxton mopping his sweating brow. A gorgeous ballad emerged from the mix at one stage - skewed and distorted , but a ballad nonetheless - with lyrical bluesy saxophone against fat guitar chords - only to drift slowly out of focus and metamorphose into something else. Braxton was continually swapping between instruments and rarely sustained his solos - often allowing them to peter out into whimpers - quite a lot of his saxophone playing involved distorted vocalised tones or slightly tremulous noodling. Sometimes he would switch saxophones, play just a few notes, then select a different instrument.

Ho Bynum's style makes full use of mutes to vary and vocalise his trumpet sound and he played one particularly ferocious trumpet solo with extensive use of mutes to bend his notes. Bynum also frequently switched between cornet, trumpets and trombone with various mutes. This group was unafraid to embrace noise as part of the music's fabric - from bass electronics to guitar scrabbling or breath noises from the trumpet or growling through the saxophone. Mary Halvorson used a wide range of techniques from chording to single line runs to scraping the fret board. Chris Dahlgren on acoustic bass, bowed and plucked - also using extended techniques - bowing below the bridge, and introducing electronics, fuzzed lines and utilising feedback from his amp.

As the set developed, everyone was enthusiastically responding to the challenges of the dense complex music and cueing up and introducing compositions on their own initiative. At one stage Dahlgren and Takeishi cued up a composition without reference to Braxton and began to play, signalling to each other when to stop, develop or repeat, almost like the pulse tracks so loved by Braxton aficionados of old.

There were few sustained episodes - most combinations or moods lasted less than 5 minutes - in a set of almost 55 minutes. The enthusiastic audience burst into prolonged and deserved applause at the end. This must be a new group as Braxton had everyone's name written on a piece of paper for the final announcement at the end of the set, (just in case he forgot?). They came back for a 15 minute encore, which was the only time the music seemed fully improvised, though even then Bynum and Halvorson had gotten into the swing of it so much that they were unable to resist interjecting a unison theme, of their own volition. The encore ended with Bynum blowing through a conch shell against guitar and bass patterns which gently subsided into silence.

The set will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 at 11.30 on 24 December - what a Christmas present that will be!

Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley

The second set started with Tony Oxley playing solo on his customised kit, looking part drum kit and part sculpture. He built from individual sounds to create an incremental narrative, making circular sweeping motions across his kit with his sticks. Oxley then activated some electronics so that he was playing against a slightly distorted version of himself - layers of percussion - with random sound clashes. At one point he was trailing chains across kit against the backdrop of the electronics. The end when it came was precisely controlled - the electronics were switched off and Oxley's gentle strokes on the cymbals drew the piece to a fine conclusion.

He was followed onstage by Bill Dixon, very elegant in waistcoat and pale leather shoes with white hair and full beard. Dixon is a sound painter like Oxley - he began by playing his trumpet into a microphone with an echo effect - breaths and blurts repeated and fading. Then with the trumpet bell held over the mike - amplifying deep resonant bass notes, and deep growls, which were contrasted with squawks and puffs. Dixon switched between silver and brass instruments and also between microphones - one with a repeating echo, the other just slightly resonant. His music comprised very deliberate placements of sound, letting statements hang in the air, then choosing the next sound, always listening and selecting.

Cecil Taylor appeared on stage without ceremony - no dancing or chanting -and sat straight down at the keyboard. He began with a gradual, incremental build-up repeating, extending and layering phrases, constructing a towering edifice of sound.

After 10 minutes, Oxley joined him onstage and sat at the drums, waiting for the right moment - before leaping into the flow at a crescendo. Then Dixon also reappeared to set breathy smears echoing against the piano and drums maelstrom - eventually quietening, but then resurgent. Only a few times during the performance did the musicians overtly listen to each other - Taylor inclining his head towards Dixon, or Oxley responding to a repeated pattern on the piano by easing back on his cymbal mayhem. A wall of sound from Oxley's drums drowned out the detail of the piano and trumpet from where I was sitting. The intensity subsided into a lyrical passage with long trumpet tones over sparse drums and piano. The piano accelerated, then quietened again leading into a spare interlude, like sunlight breaking through storm clouds - the long tones became breaths, then Dixon stepped back from the microphone. Taylor played on delicately and lyrical with Oxley tapping and clattering quietly in accompaniment before drawing to a close 35 minutes after Taylor first came on stage. The three masters took a bow and walked from the stage.

All three musicians are very much sui generis. Their solos worked as individual statements, and while Oxley has worked extensively and successfully with both men, the simplicity of Dixon's trumpet sits uneasily for me with the complexity and density of Taylor's music and this made his contribution seem peripheral - an embellishment. My favourite moment was definitely the long tones over the lyrical passage towards the end. This set will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 at 11.30 pm on 17 December. I'm looking forward to hearing whether the sound is better balanced in the broadcast than it was from the front row.

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