Anthony Braxton

Delmark DD-415


Anthony Braxton

Hat Art 4-6100

I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s. –William Blake

I’m building a system of evolution, so everything is connecting to everything. –Anthony Braxton

Edgard Varese once declared that modern composers refuse to go away. That statement certainly describes Anthony Braxton, the Chicago-born composer and instrumentalist still building a system after more than 60 albums. Two recent releases not only bracket his career so far, they signify major refinements and advances in his art. Originally issued in 1968 and newly reissued on CD, 3 Compositions of New Jazz was Braxton’s debut, one of the breakthrough recordings by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on Bob Koester’s prophetic Chicago label. Willisau (Quartet) 1991, a four-CD boxed set for a Swiss company, comes exactly a quarter century after Braxton returned from Army service to inaugurate a controversial music career.

Is he the recondite captive of his own complex musical language, as some contend, or the premier thinker of a bigger-than-jazz avant-garde? Opinions about Braxton run deep. His work–which he at first titled with numbered diagrams, dashes, and arrows–has been called too serious, and much worse. Russia’s Ganelin Trio named a piece “Who’s Afraid of Anthony Braxton?” and Ganelin saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin criticized the American’s inability to “get under a table” and play. (As if it were 1950 and Braxton were a Big Jay McNeely wannabe!) Phil Woods’s comment in a Down Beat “blindfold test” that Braxton couldn’t breathe properly on saxophone hinted that he was the jazz Antichrist incarnate. On the other hand Bill Smith, jazz writer and Dave Brubeck sideman, has written that Braxton is “the most complete musician in this period of American music.”

Braxton’s system took shape when he joined the A.A.C.M. in the mid-1960s. He distinguished himself early in a free-spirit lineage that includes Muhal Richard Abrams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, and Edward Wilkerson. The A.A.C.M. explored, in highly personal ways, fluid relationships between sound and silence, structure and free form, interdependence and independence, as well as extended instrumental techniques. The A.A.C.M.’s multidirectional experiments cooled down the “fire music” of the then-reigning avant-garde–Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor–and they still influence musicians worldwide.

In the probing manner of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Braxton tested his concepts systematically, one piece at a time. He developed a musical language with nearly 100 “sound classifications” for solo saxophone. The very first lengthy document of solo saxophone improvisation was Braxton’s For Alto (Delmark 420/21) in 1968. Eventually modular approaches to ensemble playing and improvisation also transformed his group recordings.

3 Compositions of New Jazz reflects an avant-garde in transition, one year after John Coltrane died. Posing a “less is more” alternative to the convulsive “energy music” of its time, the album shimmers with bright pauses, silences, phrases of irregular shape, lines of unpredictable length, and rhythmic freedom. This prepossessing music is not about conventional chord structure or playing off “the changes”–it’s not even, like late-period Coltrane, about straining beyond them. Textures and feelings come into existence naturally, as in a spacious conversation among friends. In this case Braxton’s formidable “friends” are trumpeter Leo Smith, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and, for half the program, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.

The opening track, “6E,” offers a suitelike ebb and flow of lyrical events that sound so destined that they defy separation into composed and improvised material. (All titles here, incidentally, abbreviate the composer’s unique pictorial language.) “Tra-la-la’s,” sung by mock troubador Braxton, initiate the album’s longest, most resonant performance. The vocals break up as the unusual chamber grouping–tempered instruments and Spike Jones-like sound makers such as kazoo, bottles, slide whistle, and an electric mixer–pulls together and drifts apart in leisurely tone-color-melody. Braxton, Smith, and Jenkins continually exchange foreground and background roles, playing alone or provoking contrapuntal contrasts: serene flute against urgent violin, scurrying lines from alto sax and violin against long trumpet tones.

One overriding structural question remains: how much direction did Braxton give his players–themselves sophisticated harmonists and distinctive composers? The ensemble realizes, seemingly through intuitive means, something more coherent than what improvisation typically produces. This music resembles what a composer might achieve in a fully planned situation–a moving unity and emotional wholeness within a various sound–but it also has that extra crackle that comes with making it up as you go along.

The remaining works on 3 Compositions move in other directions. “6D” sustains turbulent motion through a more obviously structured drama of stark subtraction. A pointillist group statement launches trumpet, violin, and alto-saxophone duets with piano. Tense rhythms from Abrams engage each voice with varied intensity, unifying the performance until his jittery lines stand alone. Leo Smith’s “The Bell” concludes the disc with a strategy midway between the open and episodic structure of “6E” and the more overt schematic approach of “6D.”

3 Compositions has aged well. It holds its own as an absorbing document of Braxton’s artistic progress and as a souvenir of early A.A.C.M. processes. Of course, this music will still make some listeners hurl, my favorite test for an avant-garde reissue. Digital transfer favors the fragile pacing and quiet passages.

More than just 23 years separate Willisau (Quartet) 1991 from 3 Compositions–it seems like several conceptual lifetimes. (Graham Lock’s 1988 Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton offers an in-depth look at the composer’s evolution, and Lock’s Willisau liner notes take a detailed tour through this music.) Braxton codified his ideas during this period in two publications, the 1,600-page Tri-axium Writings and a book of commentaries on his compositions. In these writings the composer even departed terra firma, or planned to through proposed satellite hookups of multiple orchestras on different planets. Braxton confined his earthbound projects to duos, trios, and other aggregations of fluctuating size, including four orchestras in one three-record set. But the quartet became the characteristic medium for Braxton in his handful of 70s and 80s recordings on major domestic labels, perhaps his best-known work.

The quartet is also the most efficient microcosm for hearing his ideas, never represented more thoroughly or more excitingly than on Willisau. These four CDs–four and a half hours recorded half in the studio, half in concert–update Braxton’s modular approach. Musical issues that he faced a quarter of a century ago are still addressed here. But Braxton now changes the meanings of composition and improvisation as we commonly know them, applying his most far-reaching techniques for structuring performances and distributing instrumentalists’ relationships within an ensemble.

Willisau’s cover art suggests spatial and color relations as a convenient model for the new modular quartet. A large circle is inscribed within a square and divided into quadrants, each filled with a different color. The whole system is further defined by axes and partitioned by a grid. The colors reappear inside the CD jewel boxes in altered but associated shades and rotated positions: a powerful metaphor for the astonishing Rubik’s cube of infinitely possible hues in this music.

Braxton’s new approaches to formal experimentation in Willisau transform the music, like the color circle, into a system of interchangeable elements. The composer here reworks, systematically and in diverse settings, the structural ambiguity first encountered on “6E”–how much direction has been given? First he links compositions into blocks of episodic, free-bop, and repetition-based structures. The players improvise on “charts” like members of a jazz group, but Braxton also uses his own characteristic methods as impetus for movement within the pieces. The most radical technique, which he calls “collaging,” allows members of the ensemble to quote from any of Braxton’s composed works at any point in a performance, effectively “improvising” his opuses within an opus. As Braxton told Lock, “You can feel like you’re walking through a house of mirrors.” The shifts from entirely composed material to collaged inserts to improvisation transform the work to cubist medleys, nearly impossible for the listener to identify, as Willisau’s wildly unpredictable performances flit between abstract polyphony and swinging time.

The other major reason for Willisau’s success is that everyone contributes equally. Quartet members, who’ve played together since 1985, are virtuosi-in-balance, like a hairier, edgier, riskier Modern Jazz Quartet. Marilyn Crispell, a cascading post-Cecil Taylor pianist, marries harmonic invention to devastating speed. Mark Dresser’s expressive full-toned bass applies extended instrumental techniques to fluid advantage. Gerry Hemingway, a mallets-to-bare-hands drummer, coaxes spectral colors and dynamics from his kit, marimba, and steel drums. Braxton exhibits a universal fluency on reeds, from ululating sopranino saxophone to growling contrabass clarinet.

The two studio CDs explore more “traditional” compositions. Two “story pieces,” “No. 160” and “No. 161,” illustrate Braxton’s recent movement toward a poetic and visual approach to composition. (Most cuts have been titled with the numbers of several compositions, but here titles are shortened to the first composition listed.) The story that goes with “No. 161” suggests a sympathetic mensch, far removed from the stuffed shirt Braxton’s critics have made him out to be: “Suddenly you see three guys in the poolroom, having fun, talking about their feelings of pessimism for the future. Yet these three guys are very strong and we can still have hope for them.” The composition uses one of Braxton’s recent, more human picture titles, in this case a hand drawing of players at a billiard table.

The somber music for “No. 161” actually tells a short but evocative story, by means of contrabass clarinet, arco bass, marimba, and piano. The musically more involved “No. 160,” about a couple on an existential walk in a fall landscape, refers stylistically to both Braxton’s past and future. One hears the legacy of Coltrane’s introspective tone poems in the heroically sad ambience. Yet collaging is at work in Crispell’s insert of a Braxton solo piano piece that arches the performance forward. Subtle group interplay maintains the piece’s effect of inhaling and exhaling.

“No. 158” and “No. 159” demonstrate “C-class prototypes,” another new type of connective structure Braxton’s devised. Each player performs a notated part, with some space for improvisation and with written material linked to parts for two other players. In “No. 158” Braxton’s sopranino saxophone ad-libs briefly before rejoining the four-note cycle, as if hopping on and off a merry-go-round. The group’s in-sync/out-of-sync playing creates a sense of rotating conjunction and disjunction. The performance closes with a whooshing, windlike percussion solo by Hemingway that recalls his background in electronic music. The more urgent “No. 159” features a repeating figure for alto saxophone interrupted in the middle by a cry that Lock describes as sounding “at first like a rooster trying to crow Beethoven’s Fifth.” The novelty of Braxton’s intricate gamesmanship struck me at one point when I noticed that Hemingway’s cymbals, instead of playing accents, were doubling the line being played by alto sax.

Braxton’s committed playfulness as soloist makes the “postbop” works on Willisau’s studio CDs especially wicked fun. Dedicated to saxophonist Warne Marsh, “No. 23M,” the first of these head-on references to the jazz tradition, appears twice, once with a humorous, slower reading of the up-and-down theme. (Crispell tucks parts of a solo piano composition into both versions.) Braxton’s solos out-emote Marsh with tensely mobile lines that jackknife across the beat–“outside of the time,” in Braxton’s words–high notes placed against low ones. Dedicated to Lou Donaldson, “No. 40B” bobs between a vamp and a swinging four. Here Braxton’s alto turns exuberant angles like Eric Dolphy’s shriveling note values in its surging velocity and breaking into tension-releasing cries. Crispell’s piano really dazzles on “No. 40M,” another free-bop exposition. Leaving the fleet unison theme she played with Braxton, she launches an amazingly flowing chromatic solo punctuated by percussive chord clusters. “No. 23G,” a postbop structure from the live set, merges a head-nodding stop-time theme with quotations from other Braxton pieces, repeating material, and thorny exchanges between players.

“No. 23C” stands out in the studio set as almost thoroughly composed; only Hemingway improvises as a rule. Its Willie Mays dedication fits the determined construction: 21 repeats of convoluted phrases unwind in a progressively lengthening line until collective improvisation unhinges the piece’s profound orderliness.

Willisau’s live set includes a pair of pieces based on repetition, a favorite Braxton device since For Alto. “No. 67,” dedicated to Bette Davis, has the devilish humor of the actress in her Baby Jane phase, splintering repeated phrases into an inevitable abstraction, like a mind coming apart. The leader switches from flute and contrabass clarinet to sopranino and alto saxophone, giving the proceedings a suitable coloratura busyness. The other repetitive structure, “No. 34A,” slyly makes another cinematic reference, recycling an ominous passage reminiscent of John Williams’s Jaws motif through distortions improvised by the quartet.

In the live performances on Willisau the musicians collage more freely than they do in the studio recordings. Most of the live performances are concerned with distributing energy–either building intensity or creating a peaceful environment. Players drop in and out during the flux of performance, and instrumentalists entangle in revolving combinations, like the color circle or like their predecessors on “6E.” “No. 140,” a study in unrest with tiny pockets of repose, juggles “four independent lines that come together at different junctions,” according to Braxton. Dresser’s nervously writhing unaccompanied bass distills the essence of the performance. “No. 69B” moves through multiple structures, such as a march section and a fast staccato bass line, that inspire solos and dialogue of gathering force. “No. 101” treads lightly; a flute and piano duet precedes Braxton on clarinet, who kicks off the eventually knotty group interaction. “No. 40A” builds in similar fashion.

The rest of Willisau’s live pieces move into and out of episodic atonality and relaxed lyricism, as if inventorying moods. Crispell’s piano collaborates with Dresser’s bass to establish a meditative tone of melodic sadness on “No. 20.” Hemingway’s restrained but colorful percussion opens “No. 69(0),” leading to a seamless flow of images, including a “repositioned phrase” that Braxton compares to “a filler (like whipped cream . . . on the edge of a cream cake).” Passages with fragile textures, from a marimba episode to quiet bass figures with a touch of steel drums, recall the tone-color-melody of “6E.” “No. 107,” simply a grouping of conversations, “relies on one’s ability to discern relationships,” Braxton says.

The final performance opens with “No. 23N,” a series of unresolved short episodes Braxton describes in the liner notes as “a fairy tale type sound environment,” “a post-Schoenberg relationship complex,” “a glimpse of march music possibilities,” and a “10-second piece in which the players are asked to improvise on any one note of their choosing.” A section collaging three compositions ends Willisau on a balanced note, after “No. 23N”‘s pileup of disparate idioms. Braxton’s interest in 20th-century classical music and other styles outside of jazz found expression starting with his earliest work; but collaging is relatively new to his system. So the circle of ever-realigning colors closes.

Willisau (Quartet) 1991 contains the most stirring sounds I’ve heard, and expect to hear, all year–knotted at times, brash, brooding, delicate, and comical. (Both albums are available from serious stores or by mail from Cadence in Redwood, New York 13679.) Braxton’s recent visit to Chicago, however, impressed me with how much he has evolved along with his system. Last spring he conducted a week of jazz orchestra rehearsals of his material; he also gave a stunning three-and-a-half-hour lecture on his music at Southend Musicworks. He gently reminded student musicians at the rehearsals of the hard work and concentration playing almost any music requires, then unself-consciously sang the gnarliest measures in his score as if they were “Frere Jacques.” Sheer enthusiasm, I’m sure, stretched the lecture beyond its allotted time, as Braxton segued effortlessly between what he was saying and playing samples from Warne Marsh’s “Marshmallow,” Miles Davis’s “Half Nelson,” and his own works on sopranino saxophone. The exchanges between composer and community indicated Braxton has become a passionate communicator dedicated to music and the hope for something more in his art.

Braxton’s musical thought is a model of personal independence–not just because he “did it his way” but because his dynamic system expands the freedom of the men and women who play this music by multiplying their choices. Today’s (cowardly?) young lions sound appallingly narrow by comparison: postbop traditionalists who repeat jazz history. The way that Braxton’s concepts stand apart from most contemporary music reflects a crisis in values more scary than the man himself. Should music be strictly entertainment? Or can artistic expression ultimately open the mind to larger goals of synthesis, personal transformation, and social and cultural change? The larger aim, proposed in Graham Lock’s book, is the only sensible explanation for the breadth and restlessness of Braxton’s system. Who’s afraid of Anthony Braxton now?