Allan Browne Trio
Lost In The Stars (Jazzhead HEAD168)
Review by Arjun von Caemmerer
I’d venture that no-one—not even an astrologist gazing into the Nether Regions through a retrospectoscope—would have thunk it at all probable that in the year 2013 AD in St Kilda, Australia, the two stars Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mary Lou Williams would cross orbits, leaving this album’s bright meteor shower in their wake. Seemingly innocuous and modest, this disc seams together the worlds of Concept and Content in a rare and happy union that shines in its progeny and poetry.
Whilst the template for this album’s creation is dopple, an unlikely meld of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, its music is triply realized, via the deeply sympathetic combination of Allan Browne (drums), Marc Hannaford (piano) and Samuel Pankhurst (bass). This arrangement for trio echoes Williams’ original instrumentation of Zodiac Suite, which featured her pianism with Al Lucas’ bass and Jack Parker’s drumming. Zodiac Suite was initially recorded and released by Moses Asch as a double album on six 78RPM discs in 1945. The suite was subsequently reissued on Folkways Records (with Williams’ input) in 1975. The Folkways sound is apparently much improved compared with that of the Asch records (now unavailable)—so much so, that the original track Gemini has vanished, completely replaced by its non-identical twin, an alternate take from the original recording session. In an alignment oddly appropriate to Lost In The Stars, in the same year that Williams’ Zodiac Suite was reissued—1975—Stockhausen completed his own Zodiac: Tierkreis (Tier is animal; Kreis is circle, ring or orbit).
Although these two Zodiacs are very different beasts—almost different life-forms—this album transcends such contrariety, conjoining them in their essence, which is their jazz sensibility.
Williams, inspired to compose after encountering a book on astrology, used the star signs as her starting point for a series of dedications to fellow musicians and composers, investing her compositions with personalities which she felt resonated with the signs’ temperaments. The list of dedicatees— which includes names that remain familiar along with those that are now less well-known—reveals her generosity; her notes point to what she privileged in music-making. Appropriate to the Tier-teamed Zodiac, Aries was for tenor saxophonist Ben ‘Frog’ Webster and for Billie Holiday—pioneers, people who create sounds and things you’ve never heard before; Taurus for Duke Ellington, Ellis Larkins and for Williams herself—who know in what direction they’re going; Gemini for Benny Goodman, Miles Davis and trumpeter Harold ‘Shorty’ Baker (her second husband); Cancer for saxophonist Lem Davis; Leo for trombonist Vic Dickenson—proud but hip and very strong; Virgo for jazz writer Leonard Feather—who loves blues; Libra for Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk—very charitable people; Scorpio—to my friends the sexpots Imogene Cocoa, Ethel Waters, Katherine Dunham and to Zodiac Suite bassist Al Lucas—who has telepathy with this; Sagittarius for composer/pianist Eddie Haywood (and also, when reissued, for bass player Bob Cranshaw); Capricorn for trumpeter Frankie Newton—very good…very deep…very sad; Aquarius for President Roosevelt, singer-guitarist Josh White and (belatedly) for Eartha Kitt; and Pisces for bassist Al Hall and pianist-composer Phil Moore. Significantly, Pisces was also dedicated to Barney Josephson, who hosted Williams at his Greenwich Village nightclub ‘Café Society’, where her Zodiac Suite was initially conceived.
The wide-ranging list of dedicatees also reveals her eclecticism. Of herself she said: No one can put a style on me. I’ve learned from many people. I change all the time. I experiment to keep up with what is going on, to hear what everybody else is doing. I even keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next. An accurate assessment—true to this inclination, most of her Zodiac Suite was necessarily composed whilst she was playing, as she discovered that writing without playing was too elusive, the results too sterile.
Stockhausen’s Tierkreis—a dozen melodies for music box written as part of a children’s theatre-piece called Musik im Bauch, ‘Music in the Belly’—provides the Music of the Spheres for an alternative Kinder-Zodiac among whose animals Roald Dahl’s Tummy Beast could happily take its place. Tierkreis was written midway between other other-worldly pieces, Sternklang (Star Sound) and Sirius. In keeping with Stockhausen’s elaborate (and here not cereal but serial) compositional technique, each component piece of Tierkreis’ zodiac was centred on a different pitch and with a distinctive, mathematically-derived rhythm. But whilst this might sound controlled, there is much jazz-like freedom in actual performance: the starting point is not fixed but begins with the zodiac sign corresponding to the day of the performance, after which the work cycles through the various signs back to the beginning. Further, each melody is played several times with variations or improvisations. Additionally, Stockhausen himself wrote a number of versions of Tierkreis for various combinations of chamber, voice and orchestral forces, opening the door to whatever arrangements might suggest themselves to future performers. The result is that the Allan Browne Trio have now added their distinctive voice to the growing and potentially limitless number of extant versions, which vary from recorder ensemble to electric guitar, from clarinet solo to sitar.
Salute, not imitation writes Miriam Zolin in the CD liner notes and this is true: rather than the round dozen of the original suites this trio have chosen just six of the signs, each represented on successive tracks, using first Williams’ and then Stockhausen’s compositions as launch pads for their own trajectories. The Brownian Motion of this selection process has here favoured taurus, cancer, leo, scorpio, virgo and aries (or, to appropriate Stockhausen’s nomenclature, Stier, Krebs, Löwe, Skorpion, Jungfrau and Widder). The order of the signs’ appearance—and the disruption of their conventional progression—is also non-imitative: Allan Browne’s trio finishes with aries, perhaps as a salute to William’s initiative, as this was her beginning track. There may also be an additional and unobtrusive tribute: although Taurus appeared as the 2nd track of Williams’ suite it was actually her first written piece (originally Taurus Mood), recorded the previous year. In the only version of Tierkreis I have (which features the extraordinary trombone of Stockhausen’s son Markus coupled with Margareta Hurholz’ ethereal organ) there also appears to be a kindred disruption: as it was recorded 21–24 April 1992 I would not have expected the first of the 12 tracks to be Wasserman (Aquarius) but rather—in sympathy with Karlheinz’ intentions—Stier (Taurus). This disruption cannot be accidental as none could be more intimately familiar with this music than the composer’s son: his father specifically arranged Aries from the later Sirius (1975–1977) for his son’s trumpetry; this work incorporated the whole of Tierkreis into its body. One could speculate that Markus’ variation might not only be a recognition that Stockhausen senior was outside of his time, but might also offer the view that to slavishly follow any system—even his father’s—would be antithetical to the composer’s Blakean spirit: I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.
But back to more solid ground: Ross Cockle of JAZZHEAD deserves high praise for his stellar recording and mastering of this very good…very deep…and very strong album. Having commented earlier on the fact that the Folkways Recordings were said to be a huge improvement on the Asch Records’ sound, I will go further and say that to listen to this version after hearing the Folkways Recording is to make a quantum leap into a different, much more spacious, sonic universe. Of course this has much to do—is dependant upon—advances in recording and listening technology but that is not all: rather, it is as though skeletons had been reconstituted from their DNA and returned to full-fleshed life: vivid, exuberant and unpredictable. This has everything to do with the good-humoured, generous and abundant skill of these players.
Perhaps Marc Hannaford’s participation in this project was written in the stars: previous albums include Polar (2008) concerned with the exploration of space through sound, and Homage (2009). Whilst both albums, each a trio effort with Allan Browne and bassist Sam Anning, were named by the SUN (Herald) as jazz album of the year, and Homage was nominated for an AIR award, Hannaford’s playing on Lost In The Stars also holds the elemental qualities of EARTH and WATER in equal measure. Hannaford seems an exception to old aphoristic rules: at all times his right hand knows exactly what his left hand is doing; his deviations, grounded clearly in the melodic contours of the original compositions, are intricate and fluid. When Hannaford was awarded the MCA Freedman Fellowship for Jazz earlier this month, Richard Lett commented: I have never heard jazz like Marc’s—the intricate rhythms are mesmerising, the improvisation continually surprises, the blend of heritage and innovation full of wit and amazement. How true that rings.
Samuel Pankhurst confers on the listener the benefits of this clear and detailed recording: every nuance of his bass sound—from buzzy snarl & ooze to the snap of elastic rebound—is vivid, agile, alive. He too illustrates the blend of heritage and innovation. His solo introduction to Williams’ Cancer works the edges of her motifs, gently nudging and hinting, illuminating not just what she explicitly spelled out but what she suggested; he explores the work’s corollaries and implications. By contrast, in Stockhausen’s Virgo, Pankhurst’s arco bass sounds right out, arcing from another sphere, sheared off, like the exclamations of an animal that inexplicably finds itself, alien, in this new Zodiac.
Allan Browne, poet that he is, holds the art of space: not just knowing what to say and when to say it but knowing what not to say and when not to say it. In parts of Mary Lou Williams’ suite, Jack Parker’s drum accompaniment is minimal and subtle: on her first-released Scorpio I can almost convince myself that I actually hear brush strokes. Again and again, Allan Browne populates the latent potential of this void, brushing away the cloud cover to disclose ever-shifting views, which range from sparsely-populated constellations to the tricky thickets, the ink mathematics of the Stockhausen pieces. As mentioned, the only version of Tierkreis I have encountered to date is arranged for organ and trumpet, instruments whose sound is essentially non-percussive, continuous rather than discontinuous. So Tierkreis’ translation into the language of this ensemble is compellingly disorientating and abstracted—a bit like the planisphere pictured on the surface of the disc, which inverts the Northern hemisphere view of the heavens and in playing moves the constellations clockwise, West to East rather than East to West—not unlike the nothing-and-everything difference between three and 3. On this recording these three musicians, these drei meteoriten are also one, and this one coheres so that, as Miriam Zolin’s proem puts it, the work hangs and flows; falls and courses; glitters and shines. Thanks to my late grandfather, the severely Germanic-sounding Bernhard Hermann Neumann, I harbour an unhealthy affection for an accent bunged on, and following the flurrious tail-end of Stockhausen’s Cancer the musicians’ exchange continues, testament to their evident close comradrei, their camaraderie: “Das ist verboten!” “Ah, it’s fun.” “That was good.”
Good indeed, and in the same measure as my fondness for this album, I also appreciate the way in which the listener is both seduced to search anew the other-worlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mary Lou Williams and simultaneously induced to await (Gott-zWillinge!) a sighting of that other non-identical twin which will disclose the starry constellations Libra/Wagge, Sagittarius/Schütze, Capricorn/Steinbock, Aquarius/Wasserman, Pisces/Fische and Gemini/Zwillinge.
Allan Browne – drums
Marc Hannaford – piano
Sam Pankhurst – bass
‘Taurus’ from Lost In The Stars on SoundCloud
Lost In The Stars on the Jazzhead Records website
‘Taurus’ from SoundCloud