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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Physician, Heal Thyself

So Branford is at it again......... He gave his verdict on students a while back (‘students today are completely full of shit’), and now his wrath has become broader and is turned on jazz music itself (‘There’s so little of it that’s actually good, that when it’s good, it shocks me’). In doing this he joined another A-list musician, Kurt Rosenwinkel who recently created a furore by stating that most jazz sucks He recently recanted a little, (didn’t have the courage of his convictions once the proverbial shit hit the fan?), but unfortunately this phenomenon of well known musicians, (who really should have better things to do other than pronouncing judgement on everybody else), lashing out at all and sundry doesn’t seem to be going away.

I don’t think any of these guys should be wasting their time thumping the pulpit like this (don’t they have any music they could be working on.....?), but I think it’s particularly true of Branford. At least with Kurt you’re dealing with an influential musician, but with Branford? He is certainly a famous musician and he is a also a great musician, and a great player of the saxophone. And the combination of his abilities and his association with Wynton, the Tonight Show, Sting etc will ensure he’ll always be a crowd-puller and (luckily for his students) will never have to take a teaching job to make ends meet. But Branford, for all his fame and ability, has never had an influence on the jazz mainstream – his music, for all its accomplishment, has always been too derivative.

The closest that Branford has gotten to being musically influential on the international jazz scene would have been during the time he and Wynton were doing the wonderful ‘Black Codes’ music in the early to mid-80s – more than twenty years ago. That music had a genuine impact and you can hear its influence even today. But since then Branford’s jazz playing has been remarkable for how unremarkable it is. Yes he’s a virtuoso, yes he knows the history of the saxophone and can demonstrate different stylistic influences at will. Yes his quartet members can all really play. No question. But when was the last time the jazz world was excitedly anticipating the release of Branford’s next album? Branford dismisses the idea that jazz has to always be new to be good (something I’d agree with actually....), but in his case it comes over as being one of those ‘well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ things, since he himself has not produced anything new, (as opposed to well played), in a very long time.

Even as a tenor player – and he really is a virtuoso – he’s not particularly influential. He’s been on the scene for a long time, but I’ve never heard a young saxophonist who sounded like they were influenced by Branford. He’s a great player, he’s in the public eye more than almost any other jazz saxophonist, with a public recognition that goes way beyond the narrow jazz audience. So why isn’t he influential on players of his own instrument? Because, for all his accomplishment and virtuosity, he’s too derivative. I think he’s a stylist – I think I’d recognise his playing when I heard it, (as long as he wasn’t doing one of his all too common Branford does Sonny, or Branford does Trane schticks), but it’s not different enough and hasn’t enough individuality to attract young players in the way that Joe Lovano, Mark Turner and Chris Potter do.

Of course Branford is entitled to his opinion – after all, what is a blog such as this one if not an opinion piece? And he could well point the finger at me and ask what have I ever done that was influential? Fair enough, but then again I’m not the one pronouncing judgement on the entire jazz scene and telling everyone that they’re not good enough. The artists that people like Branford name-check as being exemplars of the highest level of jazz achievement, and to whom they look to for inspiration (sometimes to the point of blatant imitation) - people such as Rollins or Coltrane - never spent any of their time criticising their colleagues. They were far more concerned with developing their own music than telling everyone else how to do it.

Even if Branford were a much more influential and innovative musician than he is, it would be drag to have him pontificating on ‘the problem with jazz’ in the way that he has. The fact that he has done so little truly original work over the past twenty five years puts him in a very weak position to be pointing the finger at others - at least artistically, commercially of course we could all take lessons from him.

If Branford really wants to change the music, it would be much better if he found something in his own music that interested enough musicians to make them change the way they play. Just telling them, (in an incredibly arrogant way) that they’re all wrong, while presiding over such a narrow bandwidth of artistic achievement himself, is never going to work.

PS. My argument is based around the opinion that Branford’s own musical output puts him in a weak position to tell others what to do, for a reasoned response to the arguments that Branford puts forward, have a look at Peter Hum’s blog

Miles and Trane - Two Beautiful Aberrations

If, like me, you're a hard-core Miles and Coltrane fan, with a particular interest in the latter half of their careers, you will no doubt have amassed a pretty large collection of live performances, either in audio format, or very commonly these days, on video or DVD. And if you have a large collection of live performances, you pretty much know what to expect in terms of the set-lists of these bands, and the tunes they most commonly played. With Trane, you probably have dozens of versions of “Impressions”, “Afro–Blue”, and perhaps a few of “Chasin’ The Trane”. With Miles, you probably have multiple versions of “Round Midnight”, “So What”, and “Walkin”. These guys' repertoires did change over time, but slowly, and by listening to these recordings you can get a good idea of what pieces they liked to play and explore.

But every now and then there's a surprise........a tune you rarely if ever hear them play, and it can be really interesting when this happens. For me as a working musician I always wonder what prompted the bandleader to call the tune on that particular night? Were they just tired of the regular repertoire? Was it a sudden impulse? Could it have been a request? Actually, that last possibility is unrealistic in the case of Miles, and probably in Coltrane's case too. But for whatever reason they decided to call it, for me it's always a real bonus to hear a familiar band playing unfamiliar repertoire, and recently I came across two great examples of pieces you wouldn't normally associate with - a) Miles second great quintet of the 60s (with Shorter, Corea, Holland and DeJohnette), and b) Coltrane’s great quartet - being played in live performances, in what, as much as I can tell, were one-offs.

In the case of Coltrane, its a version of “Autumn Leaves” performed in Graz in 1962. I was really surprised to come across this, I have never heard of Coltrane playing ‘Autumn Leaves’, even when he was with Miles, though no doubt he may have done since it was such a staple part of Miles’ repertoire for such a long time. But as far as I know he never recorded it with Miles, certainly not in the studio and in none of the live recordings I’ve heard. So it was a real surprise to come across this recently, and again I was intrigued to think about why Coltrane decided to play this tune on this particular evening.

And they played it quite straight too, with no arrangement. McCoy begins by playing the melody, and as was often the case with that band, takes the first solo. This is McCoy in really swinging mode – of course McCoy always swung, but here he’s playing a bit closer to the original changes than he subsequently would as the group evolved. There’s definitely traces of the McCoy of ‘Inception’ here, which was recorded with Elvin and Art Davis in the same year. Elvin demonstrates his uniquely virile brush technique and shows just how great a brush player he was and how great brushes can be at driving a fast tempo along – something you don’t hear too often, especially these days when great brush playing is at a premium and seems to have become the preserve of Brazilian drummers such as Edu Ribeiro and Kiko Freitas. After a while Elvin changes to sticks which is unusual in itself, as there are very few recordings of Elvin where he changes from brushes to sticks – usually, such as on Tommy Flanagan’s great ‘Eclypso’ album, once he starts on brushes he stays on them. Coltrane’s live recording of ‘Softly As in a Morning Sunrise’ is an exception and he changes to brushes for the soprano solo. Here he switches also – though interestingly he does so during the piano solo and half way through the form, giving the piece a lift in an unexpected place.

All of this gives the music a real wind-up for Coltrane’s entry, though they’re still swinging in a quite conventional way by the time he comes in - on soprano. In a way this treatment of Autumn Leaves is a bit like the aforementioned ‘Softly As in a Morning Sunrise’ in the way McCoy sets it up, Elvin changes to sticks and Coltrane plays his solo on soprano. I can’t think of any other ‘standard’ kind of tune that Coltrane chose to play on soprano – usually he used it for extended churning 3/4 modal pieces such as ‘My Favourite Things’ or ‘Afro-Blue’. But here it’s used on a burning swing piece, over the changes of one of the most ubiquitous standards of all. Unusual in itself, but what’s also unusual is the fact the solo is almost all 8th notes – in fact it’s a masterclass in burning 8th note playing over changes and how to seamlessly move in and out of them. Elvin and McCoy really get it going behind Trane’s solo and by 7.30 they’re thundering, with that giant dotted quarter being brought in when reinforcements are needed. To drop into Jazz Robot argot for a moment – completely killing!

Again, I’d love to know why Trane chose to play this tune this one time – maybe he just felt like burning up some II-Vs! By the way – the tempo hardly budges despite the whole band being on fire by the end – how did Elvin do that!?

The second surprise is Miles’ second great quintet of the 60s playing ‘Milestones’ at Juan Les Pins in 1969. Now Milestones was of course played many times by the seminal quintet with Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams, had been transformed from a loping swinging modal piece into an up-tempo burner, (often at around 300bpm), and was given the full abstract treatment on live recordings such as ‘Live at the Plugged Nickel’, but by the time the second quintet was extant it had disappeared from the repertoire. However here it makes a comeback as a loping swing tune at about 190bpm– at least at the beginning.

Again, as far as I know there are no other recordings of this piece with this band, and I’m sure there were people in the audience, devotees of the good old days of ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Gil Evans recordings who were probably horrified by what they were hearing with this band, only to be apparently thrown a lifeline when Miles starts this familiar theme in a familiar way. But their relief must have been short-lived – Miles solos quite conventionally for a few choruses and then gradually gets more animated and agitated, setting it up for Wayne (I’d love to know what Miles said to Wayne as they passed each other at 3.50.....), who starts to move it outwards, with the help of the rhythm section, and then the piece takes on the familiar contour with this band – Miles plays pretty much over the form, Wayne starts to stretch it and then Chick, Dave, and Jack take it completely out. The rhythm section were definitely going for a different thing than Miles and Wayne, really into stretching everything beyond breaking point and using the themes as a jumping off point to collective improvisation, rather than as structures to solo over. And it’s interesting to see Miles in the background, clearly paying close attention while the young guys are doing their open thing. This band was definitely the closest Miles ever got to playing in an open and free context.

So, were they playing ‘Milestones’ every night (if so there are no other recordings of it as far as I know)? The ending seems almost like an arrangement, but Wayne and Miles were so telepathic and had played together for so long by this time, they could have improvised this ending too. Or did Miles spontaneously decide to play it? I suspect the latter, partly due to the non-existence of other examples of the band playing 'Milestones'. And partly due to a fantastic story Dave Liebman told me about Miles, while playing with the ‘On The Corner/Agharta’ band, suddenly going into ‘Milestones’, and just playing the theme and then walking off the stage leaving chaos in his wake - Mtume, Michael Henderson and the two guitarists, wrestling with the form and upsetting Al Foster (who loved the earlier music) so much that he was in tears after the gig.

There are no tears here though – just incredible playing. Hearing a great band play unfamiliar material somehow reinforces their greatness. Check it out.