Monday, October 7, 2013

BYG Actuel 08: Burton Greene Ensemble - Aquariana

Ornette and Trane are the two most towering figures in free jazz, and as such the wildly expressive saxophone has remained the most dominant instrument in the genre for the last fifty years. So while pianist Cecil Taylor is undoubtedly the third member of this trinity of free jazz progenitors, the saxophone has muscled the piano out of the forefront of free jazz.[1] There have been many free piano greats, from Muhal Richard Abrams in Chicago to Alexander von Schlippenbach in Berlin, and on up to recent titans like Matthew Shipp, but their number is dwarfed by those of saxophonists.

BYG Actuel was able to even the playing field a bit by allowing so many musicians the opportunity to record their own albums as leader. So while there are many saxophonists who recorded for the label, Actuel also released records by the pianists Paul Bley, Dave Burrell, Joachim Kuhn, the incomparable Sun Ra, and Burton Greene, who was the first of his comrades to get an album out on the label. Aquariana is not quite the best piano album that the label put out,[2] but it is an excellent showcase for a unique musician and composer.

Greene was born in Chicago, but he realized quickly that New York City was the place where things were happening in free jazz, and he made it over there during one of the genre’s most exciting periods, the early sixties. He was able to embed himself in the scene by playing with Marion Brown, Sam Rivers, Rashied Ali, future BYG Actuel labelmate Alan Silva, and many others. He was one of the founding members of the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964, along with Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Carla Bley, and Sun Ra. Some members of the Guild weren’t too into following the bylaws, so infighting became rampant and the Guild ultimately didn’t amount to much other than a few underappreciated Jazz Composers Guild Orchestra records, but Greene moved on with ease, recording two ESP-Disks—his quartet’s Burton Greene Quartet in 1966 and his trio’s On Tour in 1968. As artistically fruitful as this period was for all involved, many clubs and labels remained indifferent to the freest sounds, so Greene made the trip across the Atlantic with many of his contemporaries in 1969.

Aquariana was recorded at Studio Saravah early in the Actuel summer, on June 9, 1969. Greene assembled the five member Burton Greene Ensemble for their only recorded appearance, and we’ve seen many of the players on earlier Actuel albums. Most excitingly, Arthur Jones handles alto sax duties, although he unfortunately also brought Claude Delcloo with him. Bob Guerin and Dieter Gewissler fill out the Ensemble playing bass, while Didier Malherbe—the MVP of Gong’s Magick Brother—plays flute and shenai on “From ‘Out of Bartok” and Jacques Coursil plays trumpet on “Two-One-Two Vibrations.” The album consists of two very long side-filling pieces with a third much shorter one sandwiched in the middle. These two longer pieces are what make this album such an essential Actuel document.

Side one’s “Aquarius Suite” opens with each bassist occupying a channel while Jones plays with an uncharacteristically squeaky tone in the right channel, where he lives for most of Aquariana. In fact, the stereo separation is excellent throughout this record, and very deliberate mixing choices provide a clarity of sound that isn’t usually present on free jazz records from this time.[3] They are soon joined by an uncredited flautist (presumably Malherbe), Delcloo, and Greene, who alternates frequently between playing the keys and the strings inside the piano. Delcloo’s lumbering drums are used sparingly here, but he is the only member of the ensemble who wasn’t recorded terribly well. Jones and Malherbe are an excellent combination, and Greene’s explorations of the inside of the piano are unmatched.

“Aquarius Suite” is divided into six movements: Mystery, Eastern, Piano Trio, Interpretation, Basses Painters, and Aquariana. Greene’s composition is very deliberate, allowing for strong use of negative space to signal the transition from one movement to the next. And while his piano work is excellent, he is very willing to cede time to the others when the composition demands it, most notably during an absolutely stunning Jones solo over nothing but the basses about twelve minutes into the piece. Just like his Africanasia record with Delcloo,[4] Jones’ work throughout this record is amazing, and it proves that his career deserved to have been more sustainable after 1969. Even when a second (also uncredited saxophone) joins him in the middle of the song, Jones has no problem being the most central player. He accomplishes this even when the song builds to a cacophony for the final movement. And while Greene is actually absent on much of this piece it is clear that he has a strong guiding hand throughout.

Side two opens with the five minute “From ‘Out of Bartok,’” which is the least essential piece on the record. It opens and closes with a fairly traditional if a bit slapdash theme, but the theme is quickly overtaken by some furious playing by Jones. As with “Aquarius Suite,” Greene isn’t content with a composition unless the mood and texture changes frequently, so the opening assault is swiftly replaced by a great Greene solo and some excellent conversation between the two bassists. Delcloo gets a drum solo, and while I’ve made it clear before how I feel about drum solos and Claude Delcloo solos in particular, this one is actually pretty decent and doesn’t last too long. Yet in spite of some great playing, “From ‘Out of Bartok’” feels a bit too much like a space-filler between the two long pieces.

Fortunately it is followed by “Two-One-Two Vibrations,” the best piece on Aquariana. It opens with some nice piano runs, which constitute the closest thing this piece has to a recurring theme, courtesy of Greene, and Delcloo’s awkward drumming doesn’t manage to derail things. Jones and Jacques Coursil appear early on, and they and Greene are one of those truly inspired combinations that would likely never have occurred were it not for the casual and inviting environment at Studio Saravah. The second movement, heralded by Greene’s piano runs, is much slower and more morose. While Greene ceded many of the best parts to the other members of his ensemble on the “Aquarius Suite,” he does the opposite here, taking some of the best solos for himself. His simple, pretty solo in this second movement is no exception. It’s difficult to tell which bassist is playing with a bow and which isn’t on this piece, but the bowed bass in the left channel is consistently excellent, especially during a portion when it slightly overshadows a Coursil solo in the second movement.

The third movement is kicked off by a supercharged version of the piano theme, accompanied by the rest of the ensemble, that has a locomotive quality to it. When the soloing commences, Coursil accomplishes the nearly impossible and kind of smokes Jones, which is probably the greatest surprise on the record. The instrumentation builds and builds to the most intense level we’ve heard so far, and the chaos rises almost to the level found on Dave Burrell’s Echo (Actuel 20) or Alan Silva’s Luna Surface (Actuel 12). Things cool off when the basses get some time to play unaccompanied, but Delcloo storms in to drown out the bassists’ excellent work. The piece ends with one final slower movement that brings with it melancholy Jones solo and mercifully quiet drum work, and then a brief thirty second piano/horn tag before the record stops spinning.

Greene played on a few other BYG Actuel records before the label folded and his collaborators almost all returned to the states. Greene remained in Paris for a while before relocating to Amsterdam where he has spent most of the remainder of his career. He became infatuated with Klezmer music in the ‘80s, and Klezmer has since become the dominant component in much of his work. In the mid ‘90s Greene made a successful return to New York City to perform, and since then he has returned to the city frequently to record and perform.  

Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 09: Jimmy Lyons – Other Afternoons
Actuel 10: Alan Jack Civilization – Bluesy Mind
Actuel 11: Archie Shepp – Poem for Malcolm
Actuel 12: Alan Silva and His Celestial Communication Orchestra – Luna Surface
Actuel 13: Paul Bley – Ramblin’

[1] Note that Ornette was forced to upgrade to a quintet with a piano by Contemporary Records when he first started recorded. He ditched the piano and trimmed down to his classic quartet as soon as he got the Contemporary execs off his back.
[2] We’ll be getting to that album, Dave Burrell’s Echo, when we get to number twenty in this series.
[3] ESP-Disk’s audio quality was notoriously murky.
[4] Actuel 06.

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