Anthony Braxton Sextet

(Victoriaville) 2005 Victo cd 098

Anthony Braxton & Fred Frith
Duo (Victoriaville) 2005
Victo cd 100

By Ken Waxman

Two of American reedman Anthony Braxton’s many musical persona are on display on these discs, recorded two days apart during 2005’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. United by his stellar playing on sopranino, soprano, F alto and alto saxophones, the duo CD ranges over five on-the-spot improvisations, while the sextet CD is a performance of one of his geometrically titled compositions.

Since most of Braxton’s notated works leave room for improvisation, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and tubaist Jay Rozen along with the composer spark the proceedings during the nearly 69-minute reading of the sextet piece. On the other CD, guitarist Fred Frith, who has evolved from Art Rock to free improv without abandoning any of rock’s percussiveness or energy, partners Braxton.

Livelier than his Ghost Trance Music series, Composition No. 345 calls for sonata-like frequent recapitulation of the main theme, often by unison horn lines. Highlighting and abandoning complementary sub-themes throughout, the andante opus allows for contrapuntal association that often take the form of Rozen’s electronics-extended slurs or hocketing vibrations from Aaron Siegel’s vibes, plus grasshopper-like chirps from the strings of violist Jessica Pavone and bassist Chris Dahlgren.

Midway through, Bynum introduces guttural plunger tones and Rozen pedal-point snorts on top of pitter-patter from Siegel’s percussion. With Braxton moving from a harsh, broken note ostinato to near-impressionistic treble tones, hissing electronics and spiccato fiddling stretch the theme still further. After an episode of hummingbird-like swift grace notes from the cornetist and Donald-Duck-like-triplets from the tubaist, hints of walking bass and cymbal sizzle enter the aural picture. This jazz-rhythm-section-related bottom steadies the piece which had threatened to dissolve beneath Pavone’s abstract spiccato, shrill whistles from Bynum and rhino-like rumbles from Rozen.

Alphorn echoes from the tuba, muted cornet lines and sopranino twitters break free from the solid, unvarying roar that characterize the final thematic recap. By the conclusion, all the instruments harmonize into an undulating crescendo that fades to a single pulsation.

Whispery and legato, Braxton adopts a Paul Desmond-like timbre from his horns to contrast with the buzzing amp and flanged wave forms of Frith’s guitar on the other CD. Infrequently introducing fortissimo passages, circularly breathed note clusters or glottal punctuation, the reedist smartly responds to Frith’s proactive chording and picking.

Throughout the extended middle improvisations, the guitarist often appear to creating his dissonant and raspy sounds by beating and slapping the strings, adumbrating the saxophonist’s few glottal cries and screeches. Yet Frith’s technique encompasses more than crunching chords, pointed reverb and accelerating wobbling trills. Harp-like glissandi, bottleneck echoes and frailing downstrokes almost set up a parlando dialogue with the saxophone that at one point contrasts the guitarist’s boogie-rock progression and the reedist’s soaring blues notes. Eventually the contrapuntal lines soften into individual string plucks and single-tongued chirps.

With the duo disc as colored with unexpected textures in its way as the sextet CD highlight timbres in a more formal setting, either set demonstrates Braxton’s ongoing compositional and improvisational strengths.

In MusicWorks Issue #98