Thursday, August 07, 2008
It Cuts Through: A Tony Oxley mixtape
[This post was accidentally published before it was done, so please refresh and make sure you're viewing the latest version before proceeding.]
I heard Tony Oxley with Cecil Taylor at the Vanguard about three weeks ago on July 15, 2008, exactly one month after Oxley's 70th birthday. When I think back on the show, what strikes me most is how *little* Oxley played and yet how he still had a completely equal role in shaping what went down. Over the years he's evolved into a wizardly player whose two great features, as I see them, are superb rhythmic choicemaking and--and this is the biggie--a combination of timbral exoticism and timbral clarity. In other words: In any given composition--think of that term spatially--he knows what tiny detail will enhance the overall layout, exactly where it ought to be placed and exactly what it ought to look like so as to catch the eye. The latter is crucial, Oxley is a master TIMBRALIST, a curator of only the oddest, most ear-catching sounds, the ones that--in his words CUT THROUGH a given piece of musical matter. (Take a good look at the kit above: tiny hi-hats, plastic woodblocks, mutant cowbells, little bongos: yielding a symphony of metallic groans and wispy clicking, all combining not into something so boring as a Drum Set, but into a groaning, clicking, swishing, rattling contraption, approximating a uniquely poetic and subtle sort of entropy.) Honor rock musicians too late in their lives and they may be onto some lackluster twilight, but as I've seen in the past year checking out Muhal Richard Abrams, Sonny Simmons and Bobby Few, the best improvisers and jazz players only improve over time. (I remember my lifebro Jeff once saying that to me and years later, I'm agreeing with him in a big way.) Oxley is such a dude, majorly, and hence my attempt to make sense of a very diverse and heavy-duty discography:
It Cuts Through: A Tony Oxley mixtape
(The title I've chosen comes specifically from this brief but outstandingly detailed interview with Oxley. The inquisitor, Alyn Shipton, comments on the incisiveness of the percussionist's sound choices and Oxley responds with a perfect summation of the philosophy behind his maverick timbralism and exotic homemade kit:
"Cutting, it cuts through; no matter what you're doing it will cut through. So I think a lot of drummers should think about that because when they're playing time and they're shoving this on the wherever, usually two and four..., it really needs to have a different sound and the cymbal they're playing on in order to mean anything. And you can't blame the engineer can you...? Maybe you should think about that before you get to the studio or before you start to record, think about it in terms of music rather than reproduction.")
The mix is ten MP3s in a zip file, with ID tags ideally formatted for iTunes use. It's a long compilation, but I hope, worthwhile and illustrative especially of a few basic principles of Oxleyana that--before I started investigating further--weren't clear to me even as a longtime fan of his work. Here are annotations and the tracklist follows:
1) Most freejazz/freeimprov fans know Oxley as THE BEST collaborator, the one who somehow can inspire giants as diverse as Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Derek Bailey to some of their best playing. In the realm of free improv, it would be hard to think of a player who has helped so many different musicians to sound incredible. So yeah, his approach is so subtle and supportive that it's easy to overlook that he's also an amazing *bandleader*. Through his important major label (yeah, weird right?) works of the late '60s and early '70s, through his Incus works of the decades that followed, he showed himself to be an outstanding deployer of improvisers. Many of the works on records such as Ichnos or Tony Oxley (a.k.a. 1975's Incus 8) don't necessarily sound like fully fleshed-out compositions, but there is a very present sense of a guiding hand, of a predetermined conceptual frame that gives Oxley's leader records an edge over a lot of just-show-up-and-hit freeimprov sessions. On the mix, "Never Before or Again" from the aforementioned self-titled record is a great example of this. Oxley was drawing from essentially the same pool of players as another incredible percussionist/free-improv-shaman of the time, Spontaneous Music Ensemble's John Stevens, but he was charting his own path. Both were engaged in a space race of sorts: Whose ensemble could listen hardest? Whose could leave the most space? Whose could most closely approximate the movement of a single organism? (Stevens may have won the top prize on SME's Karyobin, but all the entries as prizeworthy in this particular bout.) Oxley's bandleading efforts grew sparser over the years, but check out The Enchanted Messenger from '94, where he leads a whole orchestra in some expertly plotted jam-outs (Though I could do without Phil Minton's free-scat vibes, personally.). It's not represented on the mix, but it's out there to be heard.
2) The Tony Oxley most of us stateside folk know--i.e., from the high-profile collaborations with Taylor, Dixon, etc.--could only be described as alien, nongenre, off the grid, etc. But it must be remembered that the man is also a JAZZ drummer. The mix includes "Pete the Poet" from the early John McLaughlin date Extrapolation (1969), which is also Oxley's first studio date--interestingly, his first record is with Ronnie Scott, live at the famous British jazz club that bears Scott's name. Anyone checking this out who's a fan of progressive '60s jazz will tell you: Oxley sounds *exactly* like Tony Williams here, right down to cymbal timbres and snare sound. Maybe he's a little stiffer, but I'd've been fooled hearing this blind. He's not using his--as fellow Oxley enthusiast Steve Smith termed it--mutant kit there, but check out "Body and Soul" on the mix, a collaboration with saxist Tony Coe. Oxley's swinging away in traditional ballad mode but using those inimitable Oxleyan alien sounds that can't help but cut through. Visual evidence of Oxley playing straight-up jazz on the mutant kit is here:
3) Electronics are a big deal to Oxley, not just seasoning. Check the awesome 1971 solo "Oryane" on the mix to hear how he subtly moves from acoustic to plugged-in playing. By the '90s--listen to "Quartet 2"--he was working with majorly hi-tech sonics. He doesn't play any of the electronics on that track, but he's chosen collaborators who know how to wield the juice.
4) Oxley doesn't even need to actually hit anything to bend space-time. Check out "Cavern of the Snail for Cello and Cymbals," where Oxley bows and scrapes metal and conjures weird sine-wave mania.
Here's the tracklist. Most links are to entries in this outstanding Oxley discograpy, where you can find all personnel and recording date info. All sessions are Oxley-led, unless otherwise noted. I'd suggest ordering the tracks manually if they don't show up in your player in this sequence:
1) Trio 2 (1977), from February Papers
2) Pete the Poet (1969), from John McLaughlin's Extrapolation
3) Thorn Apple (1998), from Alexander von Schlippenbach and Tony Oxley's Digger's Harvest
4) Never Before or Again (1972), from Tony Oxley (Incus 8)
5) Oryane (1971), from Ichnos
6) Body and Soul (1983), from Coe, Oxley & Co.'s Nutty
7) Quartet 2 (1992), from The Tony Oxley Quartet
8) Article Four (1991), from Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Surman and Tony Oxley's In the Evenings Out There
9) Cavern of the Snail for Cello and Cymbals (1974), from The Tony Oxley Alan Davie Duo
10) Crawlspace (1998), from Bill Dixon's Papyrus Volume II
*The Taylor collaboration is crucial but unwieldy on disc: Most of the time you're dealing with long, unbroken performances. Check especially Looking (Berlin version) and Celebrated Blazons, in my opinion the finest documents of Taylor's Feel Trio with Oxley and bassist William Parker. Regrettably, the sound on 2 Ts for a Lovely T, a ten CD box set of that band, absolutely sucks, with the bass sounding like a miniature violin at best. No body or presence whatsoever. The two listed above though are massive and mindblowing.
*The Taylor/Dixon collaboration encompasses probably the best recorded documentation of either player's core concept. You won't hear Bill Dixon or Tony Oxley sounding more gorgeous than they did on Soul Note in the '90s. "Crawlspace" from the mix is a great example, but so is anything from Vade Mecum, a marvelous, marvelous record. Berlin Abbozzi, from '99, reprises the trumpet-bass-bass-percussion format of that session in a live setting w/ different bassists. Sound isn't as sumptuous, but it's a very cool disc.
*Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley, the Victo record that launched 1000 contentious blog posts. Weirdly controversial record, but my view is that it's just a really solid session and not entirely unexpected given those three men's recent output. Let yourself get used to Dixon's heavy use of delay and you'll start to feel the vibe.
*I'd very much recommend the early major label discs not represented here, "The Baptised Traveller," recently spotlighted by Destination Out, and "Four Compositions for Sextet." They're both excellent and if you like the organized freedoms you hear on "Never Before or Again," this is right in that sweet spot (and Baptised even features unison "heads" in the normal jazz sense).
As a bonus, check out a cool Oxley sesh on FMP courtesy of the WFMU blog.
And don't sleep on Oxley's marvelous visual art. I read a theory once that Dixon and Oxley's hookup was so complete in part b/c they were both also accomplished painters; no offense to Dixon, whose art is rad, but Oxley is sorta beyond. I'd totally buy one of these. Some paintings are viewable here. Gorgeous stuff, as you can see: