Monday, May 23, 2016

Braxtonia for beginners (including, um, me)

The scope and rigor of Anthony Braxton's sound world can be intimidating. When I was dipping a toe in jazz back in the mid-'70s, I owned two Braxton LPs: Trio and Duet, a 1973 release on tiny Canadian indie Sackville, and Creative Orchestra Music 1976, which some folks will tell you is the crown jewel of Braxton's "minute" on major label Arista. The former consisted of a side-long piece of Stockhausen-influenced abstraction, replete with Richard Teitelbaum's synthesizer textures (decades before I ever heard the phrase "electroacoustic improvisation"), backed with a side of jazz standards, performed by the multi-reedist on alto, with accompaniment by his former Circle bandmate (and ex-Miles Davis sideman) Dave Holland on bass. The latter was a mixed bag that included everything from near-Ellingtonia to more 20th century Euro-influenced fare to a Sousa-esque march that breaks down into free jazz soloing, including a scream-trumpet-on-acid solo by estimable studio pro Jon Faddis.

In other words, cat was all over the map. In the fullness of time, it's evident that he was using what he reckoned (correctly) would be a limited period of mass-ass exposure opportunity to document as many different aspects of his art as possible. Since then, a career in academia (he retired from Wesleyan University in 2013) has allowed him to pursue his muse without starving, and his more recent output consists of expansive (and pricey) multi-disc sets devoted to single facets, which makes him challenging to collect (as if the massive volume of releases didn't already). This year alone, he's released an opera (four CDs plus a Blu-ray disc), a three-disc box of his "Echo Echo Mirror House" music (more on this below), and a seven-disc box devoted to the works of visionary jazz composer-pianist Lennie Tristano and his associates. A busy guy.

When I got intrigued again, in the wake of Braxton's contemporary and sometime collaborator Henry Threadgill's receipt of a 2016 Pulitzer Prize, it was puzzling to discover that my go-to jazz scribe Gary Giddins had little (in the books of his I own, anyway) to say about Braxton (who's often taken it on the chin from self-appointed arbiters of "jazz authenticity"), while Francis Davis fixated on the impenetrability of the muso's discourse. White critics, Braxton believes, treat African-American creative music as a form of "black exotica," but he views the philosophical/spiritual/ritual underpinnings of his music as part of a continuum that stretches back to ancient Egypt. (Frustrated by critical misinterpretations of his work, Braxton has authored a three-volume treatise, Tri-axium Writings, along with five volumes of Composition Notes. All are available from the composer via Frog Peak Music.)

One way for the interested novice to gain insight into the composer's thought process might be via the interviews Brit journo Graham Lock, who toured the UK with Braxton's quartet in 1985, did for his book Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (currently out of print; excerpts available online here). I had the additional benefit of suggestions from Charles Young (of Phoenix) and Herb Levy (of Fort Worth), and the "Guide to Further Listening" from John Corbett's Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein, which also contains a useful Braxton interview.

Braxton's influences include 20th century classical figures like Cage, Stockhausen, and Schoenberg, as well as jazzmen like Paul Desmond, Warne Marsh, and John Coltrane. Most importantly, he was a product of Chicago's Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians, the musicians' cooperative/community based educational organization that served as a learning laboratory for composers like Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, and mentor/paterfamilias Muhal Richard Abrams, as well as Braxton in the hothouse days of the mid-'60s.

Francis Davis noted that Braxton is a sci-fi and Star Trek nut, unsurprising for a brainiac who talked about composing symphonies for multiple galaxies around the time (late '70s) Arista released his composition for four symphony orchestras. (It's revealing to contrast Braxton's compassion, when interviewed by Lock, for the student musos who recorded his For Four Orchestras -- at a tempo slower than that specified -- with Frank Zappa's contempt, when writing The Real Frank Zappa Book, for the professional orchestras who recorded his music.) Braxton's musical systems include "language music," which started out as a catalog of techniques to be used as prompts for solo instrumental performances; three different types of "repetition structures," which he dubbed "Kelvin" ("phrase generating structures"), "Cobalt" ("sound blocks") and "Kaufman" ("multiple relationships"); and "collage" approaches, where instrumental parts are interchangeable and musos have the option of playing a different composition against the "primary territory." Collage pieces also include the use of "pulse tracks," in which instruments alternate improvisation and notated material for short, shifting durations. The net effect can be akin to Charles Ives' simulation (in Three Places in New England) of two marching bands being heard simultaneously -- or the effect I experienced walking between two barracks in Korea, where one was playing Grandmaster Flash and the other was playing Journey.

The collage approach was perfected by the quartet with Marilyn Crispell on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, and Gerry Hemingway on drums that existed for about a decade ('83-'93), during which the musos acquired a high degree of familiarity with Braxton's methods and repertoire. Comparisons between this group and the "classic" Coleman and Coltrane quartets sell the Braxton unit short, as this group was blending improvisation with a high percentage of notated material on the fly, and making it sound seamless. The half-live, half-studio 4CD HatART box Willisau (Quartet) 1991 is probably their definitive document, but as it retails for a couple of hundred bucks, I chose to settle for Quartet (Birmingham) 1985, one of three double CDs on Leo Records that were recorded during the '85 UK tour chronicled in Graham Lock's book. (The London concert was recorded by the BBC, Birmingham and Coventry by a fan. The released version of Coventry includes lengthy excerpts from Lock's interviews with Braxton along with the music. Lock characterized London as "coolly intense," Birmingham as "visceral and sweaty," Coventry as "historic" -- informed by Braxton's decision, subsequently reversed, to disband the quartet at the end of the tour. )

Braxton's at work on a cycle of 12 operas, Trillium, three of which have been performed and recorded so far (Trillium J was released this year), and which he envisions as part of a 12-day "festival for world dynamics." His latter-day methodologies include "Diamond Curtain Wall Music," which integrates improvisation with computer-generated electronic patches; the aforementioned "Echo Echo Mirror House," which besides having a Monty Pythonesque name, requires musos to manipulate iPods as well as instruments to combine live performance with sampled sounds from Braxton's discography; "Falling River Music," which combines colorful graphic scores with vague instructions; "Ghost Trance Music," a body of work that was his main focus between 1995 and 2006, characterized by staccato unison melodies, additional scored material that can be interjected at the player's discretion, and suggestions of other Braxton compositions to be incorporated in the piece; and "Zim Music," which integrates graphic and traditional scores in the same way as "Falling River Music," adding an element of group play with volume.

Released on Delmark -- the Chicago label that also released Braxton's debut Three Compositions of New Jazz and his groundbreaking solo recital For Alto -- Four Compositions (GTM) 2000 provides an easy access point to the "Ghost Trance Music" for listeners approaching from the jazz side. The quartet format used here allows more improvisation than a larger unit would. While none of the musos (former students) who accompany the composer have as strong personalities as their counterparts in the 1985 unit, their multi-instrumentalism (like Braxton's) provides textural variety. Their improvs (or are they contrasting notated parts?) swirl around the fixed parts of the form like water around stones.

He also continues to explore the jazz tradition. A precursor to this year's release Quartet (Tristano) 2014, Eight (+1) Tristano Compositions 1989 For Warne Marsh pays tribute to the West Coast figure whose rigorous music was almost as misunderstood in its day as Braxton's has been, and his saxophone accomplice who became Braxton's second role model after Paul Desmond. (But guys from Chicago aren't allowed to admire West Coast white guys, say the jazz police. Oh well.) For Warne Marsh has a bright, lustrous sound unheard on a jazz record since, I dunno, Arthur Blythe's In the Tradition -- only not as shrill as that one; you can hear Cecil McBee's bass just fine here, as he locks in with Andrew Cyrille's drums and Dred Scott (a Braxton discovery)'s piano. Jon Raskin (ROVA Saxophone Quartet)'s baritone provides a contrasting solo voice to Braxton's alto and sopranino as they careen wildly through Tristano's circuitous melodies at warp speed. In the middle of all this is the (+1) of the title: a reading of Marsh's "Sax of a Kind" that serves as a tranquil island of sublime grace amid all the velocity. (Braxton would probably hate that description. Oh well.)

Perhaps I'll provide further communiques as I descend farther down the rabbit hole. (Right now, I'm stalking For Four Orchestras online.) Onward and, um, downward...


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