ANTHONY BRAXTON

Ninetet (Yoshi’s) 1997, Vol.2
Leo CD LR 382/383

Ever get one of those melodies inside your head that you keep hearing over and over again and that you can’t get out of your memory, no matter how hard you try?

Well, Anthony Braxton seems to be trying to create a similar situation with his Ghost Trance Music (GTM). A preoccupation of the composer/reedman since at least the mid-1990s, GTM compositions are usually played by larger bands and include a repetitive — and nearly identical theme — leavened by improvised solos.

Like the unique soundworlds created by other distinctive improvisers such as AMM or The Necks, to truly appreciate GTM you have to accept Braxton’s compositions on their own terms. Each time you have to simultaneously focus on the leitmotif that controls the piece’s shape as well as listen to the instrumental work around it.

That’s certainly true with these two long — around 58 minutes each — pieces recorded on a California foray by Wesleyan professor Braxton and his cohorts, all of whom except reedist J.D. Parran, percussionist Kevin Norton and bassist Joe Fonda, were at one point Braxton students.

Because of this great influence —- and the band room full of saxes and clarinets the reedmen play — it’s difficult to pinpoint individual solos. One is tempted to ascribe most of the solo work to either Braxton, who variously plays alto, F alto, soprano, and C-melody saxophones and flute plus Bb, bass and contrabass clarinets; or to Parran, another Free Jazz veteran who plays soprano and bass saxophones and flute.

On “Composition No. 209”, for instance, several themes, variations and solos seem to appear at the same time as the music propels the ensemble from percussion-reed textures that resemble the sound of busy manual typewriters to a merry go round of high, wiggling vibrations. Peeping through this dense curtain of notes are false register growls, clarinet glissandos, tongue slaps and bass saxophone snorts. With the massed horn section polyphonically repeating the initial theme every few minutes or so, other solos are sometimes clocked within the reed fanfare. Someone does, however, produce foghorn-like contrabass clarinet noises, a pastoral flute passage and some shrill New Thing-like alto sax overblowing.

Meanwhile Norton marshals his hocketing vibe impulses into a veil of shimmering tones, guitarist Kevin O’Neil reverberates flat-picked lines and Fonda’s well modulated bass line appears and then vanishes again. Thanks to the scraped guiro-like tones, descending guitar licks and bass continuum, the piece has enough of a foot-tapping beat to not descend into mesmerizing trance music. But with the horns usually operating in slurred unison, no one, except for Braxton as a composer really makes a standout impression.

Slightly longer, “Composition No. 210” is more of the same, though the ululating tones do sway at a slighter faster tempo. Early on one of the saxists — Braxton? — comes out with a snaky, double-tongued reed abrasion. Considering the appreciative applause that greets this departure from the other strained, whistling horn timbres, the audience at this 1997 club gig may have yearned for more committed soling as well.

Later on, however, the few other demonstrations of extended reed techniques including nasal alto honks, an oomph pah pah ostinato from the bass saxophone and a weedy tone that could come from an oboe don’t call forth the same reception. That could mean that the crowd was finally committed to the ins-and-outs of the composition or had inured itself against further outbursts.

Here again, among the accordion tone suggestions that come from the combined horns and the odd, curt reed peeps and beeps, Norton is a stand out. Besides outlining a standard repertoire of ruffs, rolls and flams from his kit, he produces shattering electronic-like cymbal resonation and puts pressure on the hard wood of his marimba’s keys to give a steadying rhythmic direction to the concluding section of the performance. O’Neil too acquits himself with stuttering flailing on the portion of his strings below the bridge.

In conclusion, before exiting with whole note chirping that’s almost mainstream mellow, an alto saxophonist — Braxton again? — honks out more New Thing-like glossolalia after a whining clarinet has gathered all the horns into tone-passing circles like a sheep dog rounding up his flock.

Braxton followers will no doubt welcome this newly revealed chapter in his oeuvre, while neophytes may look for a smoother entry point to his massive catalogue. It’s a credit to his vision that both pieces are never less than improvisationally exciting. Still, with its overriding tonal similarity, a little GTM goes a long way, and no one except the Braxtonphile should attempt to listen to both CDs here in one sitting.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Composition No. 209 CD2: 1. Composition No. 210

Personnel: Anthony Braxton (alto, F alto, soprano, and C-melody saxophones, flute, Bb, bass and contrabass clarinets); Brandon Evans (tenor, C and sopranino saxophones, bass clarinet, flute); James Fei (soprano and alto saxophones, bass clarinet); Jackson Moore (alto saxophone, Bb clarinet); André Vida (tenor, alto, soprano and baritone saxophones); J. D. Parran (soprano and bass saxophones, flute); Kevin O’Neil (guitar); Joe Fonda (bass); Kevin Norton (drums, marimba, percussion, vibraphone)