Invisible ear
Fringes 12

Solo (Milano) 1979
Golden Years of New Jazz GY 20

When visionary Anthony Braxton ushered in the idea of solo saxophone sessions with FOR ALTO in 1969, he probably never released how many contemporary reedists would follow his lead.

Today it seems that nearly every modern horn player, excluding the so-called Smooth Jazz fraternity, has tried his or her hands — or more rightly fingers — at the concept with mixed results. Luckily the CDs here feature the work of two stylists who thrive on solo playing, because they’re internalized its inherent challenges, beyond novelty. Instructively, as well, the discs also show how unique applications have altered underlying concepts.

SOLO (MILANO) 1979, for instance, finds Braxton, playing only alto saxophone, still basing his improvisations on an extension of the jazz and standards tradition. In contrast, on INVISIBLE EAR, British soprano and tenor saxophonist John Butcher uses

close-miking, multi-tracking and amplified/feedback to abstract his already more experimental conceptions.

Not that the limited-edition CD is an unalloyed triumph. While “What remains” and “Atelier”, the two multi-tracked sax tracks, are the most pleasing to the ear, they also sound the most conventional. The later, especially, which piles soprano sax lines upon soprano sax lines to create impressionistic overlays of sound, makes you wonder how much different the end product would have been if the three lines had been played by three different, but coordinated saxists. The former features five tenor and three sopranos buzzing like hummingbirds from different parts of the sound spectrum.

“The importance of gossip”, which highlights amplified/feedback saxes and a Korg synthesizer, offers up more tones, timbres and hisses. With flattement and key percussion bubbling out from all the instruments simultaneously, alternate shrill and growling tones are smoothed out by rolling feedback.

Rolling out appears to be the key description here, for whether it’s double-tongued fast slurred tones or pure colored air going through the body tube to produce breath overtones and whistles, Butcher uses the same limber technique. On “A controversial fix for....” rolled air takes harsh growled, split tones and directs it so the sound doubles and takes on expansive accordion properties which reflect back on the primary timbres.

Meanwhile close-miked experiments result in tracks where reed squeals take on the persona of a drumstick scraped on a cymbal or key pops recreate what could only be termed the crumbling of tissue paper. The amplified soprano on “Sprinkler” gives more body to Butcher’s distinctive tongue-slapping and key popping tones as splayed fingering and flutter tonguing are partnered by percussive mouth sounds, key movement clicks and a few reed squeals. Then there’s the unvarying droned feedback on “Magnetic bottle”, where the shaking, doorbell-like buzzing distorts the reed output so that it appears that a second tenor saxophone or perhaps a bagpipe from outer space is present.

“Streamers” is most memorable track, not so much for the feedback, which only appears to be triggered at the end, but for the deliberate manipulation of the keys, isolating each note and producing vibrations of the vibrations of the vibrations. Sometimes, between key manipulation and breaths through body tube, some would be hard pressed to swear that the sound came from a tenor saxophone if it wasn’t noted on the sleeve.

There’s no question that Braxton is playing alto saxophone on his disc, though, and he even includes one jazz standard and Tin Pan Alley ballad to prove he was in the tradition, an expression that in 1979 hadn’t yet taken on retrogressive Marsalis-like overtones. His treatment of “Out of Nowhere” is fascinating, since he deconstructs the verse before he introduces the familiar chorus. Despite some double tonguing, his treatment of “I Remember Clifford” seems a little too respectful, however. Listen closely and you’ll hear a foot tapping beat and he makes sure to reprise the head after he concludes his variations.

“Composition No. 77b” and “Composition No. 106m” which begin and end this live concert are both taken pretty legato and with unthreatening timbres. Slides, slurs and repetitive passing tones don’t mask the references to half-forgotten bebop lines that poke through. You’d listen in vain for similar suggestions on Butcher’s disc.

Don’t forget, however, that this concert was taped more than 20 years before the other CD, so what may sound balladic in 2003, may have been almost as frighteningly unfamiliar to the audience as his methodology experiments. Many of those are on display as well. A couple of tunes have Braxton producing canon-like stair step cadenzas or pieces that begin with low-pitch growling honks that dissolve into higher-pitched multiphonics, complete with hearty tongue slaps.

As Butcher and others would do later on, “Composition No. 8h” finds Braxton dealing with circular flutter tonguing, repeated split tones and slurred lines so that the first lines are extended by the second ones and echoed with wavering multiphonics. “Composition No. 8g” features internal body tube squeaks and throat shouts, while flattement is used to advance and vibrate different note patterns.

“Composition No. 8h” may even be a textbook example of Braxton’s style at the time. Beginning in a straight line, but with glottal honks and repetitive overblowing, he soon cleaves the sound so that it appears he has two horns — one high, smooth and legato, the other low, harsh and staccato —, that then change places for a time. High-intensity harsh honks, squeals and trills mean that the piece ends faster, more abstract and more dissonant than it began without every losing the audience’s concentration.

These sessions by a solo pioneer and a sonic explorer will likely interest more than just reed freaks.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Invisible: 1. Swan style 2. Cup anatomical 3. What remains 4. Streamers 5. A controversial fix for.... 6. ....shrilling reed freakout 7. The importance of gossip 8. Dark field 9. Bright field 10. Magnetic bottle 11. Sprinkler 12. Atelier

Personnel: Invisible: John Butcher (close-miked soprano saxophone [tracks 1, 2, 8, 9], multi-tracked saxophones [tracks 3, 12)], amplified/feedback tenor saxophone [tracks 4, 5, 6, 10)], amplified/feedback soprano saxophone [track 11], multi-tracked feedback saxophones and Korg synthesizer [track 7])

Track Listing: Solo: 1. Composition No. 77b 2. Composition No. 119a 3. Composition No. 8g 4. I Remember Clifford 5. Composition No. 99L 6. Composition No. 8h 7. Out of Nowhere 8. Composition No. 8i 9. Composition No. 99m 10. Composition No. 106m

Personnel: Solo: Anthony Braxton (alto saxophone)