Anthony Braxton

Trio (Victoriaville) 2007
Victo cd 108

Anthony Braxton Quartet

(Moscow) 2008

Leo Records CD LR 518

Taking some time from his Ghost Trance Music and large ensemble work, over the past couple of years, multi-reedman/composer Anthony Braxton has recruited a more intimate touring ensemble, which on the evidence of these CDs, perfectly frames and personalizes his new compositions.

Initially called the Diamond Curtain Wall trio and filled out by guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum – both of whom studied with Braxton and play in his larger groups – the band recently became a quartet with the addition of bassoonist Katherine Young, a 2003 graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory.

Performing a single, different Braxton composition on each of these live sessions, recorded approximately one year apart, the recital-sized combos are equally impressive. The discs demonstrate not only the bonding of the trio members – on Victoriaville – but also – with Moscow – how additional sonic colors amplify the composition when exposed within the oblique polyphony that characterizes Braxton’s work.

Be aware though, that despite the number, the quartet isn’t a 21st Century version of Braxton’s most notable foursome – the 1980s band with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway. For a start with decidedly less standard instrumentation, this band is removed even further from so-called jazz than its predecessor. Secondly its unique musical definition encompasses the use of multiple instruments by each horn man on both sessions and – on Victoriaville – Braxton himself manipulating electronic fields. On the other hand, even more than 20 years later and with Braxton’s sidefolk correspondently younger than him, there’s still no sense that the sessions are those of a master and his disciples. Everyone participates equally in creation. The solitary point of congruence with the earlier quartet is that with Bynum and Halverson now leading their own bands and in-demand on others’ session, this group will likely not stay together very long.

That’s a pity, since Halverson’s alternately sedately strumming or flinging distorted textures throughout the nearly one-hour “Composition No 323c”, opens space to give Bynum and Braxton manifold opportunities to create, singly or together. “Composition No 367b” take the concordance one step further as Young’s spurting pedal-point tones provide an additional bottom upon which the others’ improvisations can freely range.

Besides the electronic shimmers, alterations and whooshes, which Braxton uses sparing on the first disc, timbral multiplicity is expressed through the different horns’ tonal properties. Braxton plays sopranino, soprano, alto, baritone, bass and contrabass saxophones and Bynum cornet, flugelhorn, trompbone, piccolo and bass trumpets, shells and mutes on Victoriaville. Moscow’s instruments of choice are sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones and contrabass clarinet from Braxton and cornet, flugelhorn, piccolo and bass trumpets and valve trombone for Bynum.

While Bynum moves from body tube echoing to scattering sharp triplets to arching silvery grace notes throughout, no matter which horn he has at his lips, Braxton assumes different persona depending on the reed. On bass saxophone his shaking snorts create an ostinato that helps define the piece’s foundation; on clarinet, discursive glissandi add unexpected timbres to the interface; and on alto saxophone his rubato line is as close to conventional jazz as he ever will be. Halverson’s near-folksy finger-picking, chromatic near-fretless runs or single-not reverberations constitute varied responses.

With oscillated pulses adding sound loops to fill any pauses, Bynum occasionally finds himself in double counterpoint duets with Braxton. Peeping and squeaking the note sequences they harmonize or just as suddenly play out antipodal contrasts. Eventually the brassman’s braying split tones and the reedist’s low-pitched slurs and honks reach a staccato interface which then pitch-slides into guitar lines. Without climaxing the three are led by the guitar’s licks down the scale and an eventual full stop. Coda is a series of blurry, spinning electronic pulses.

Lacking electronics, but with pedal-point hocketing tones from the bassoon, in the Moscow performance“367b” seems a close cousin to “323c”. Evidentially more emboldened in the year that has passed, the guitarist introduces more rasgueado and double strummed voicing in her playing. Similarly Bynum’s use of the piccolo trumpet is more obvious with measures frequently chirped and triple-tongued. On alto saxophone, Braxton extends these twittering cries and, without breaking the line, extends them just a little further.

Moreover, his triple sonic personalities show here, as the spetrofluctuation, tongue-slaps and glottal pressure apparent in his contrabass clarinet work, the sopranino curlicue trills and storytelling alto saxophone textures vie for equal space. Exaggerated crunching chords from the guitarist mark shifts in the more-than-70 minute composition, with distinctive bassoon gurgles additionally below the front-line horn.

Now that Halvorson is free to contrast clawhammer, quasi-banjo strokes in concert with the saxophonist’s hungry animal-like growls and Bynum’s capillary triplets, the four parts –including pedal-point bassoon echoes – continue along separate paths that combine pleasingly at certain junctures. A final recital variant includes thick strumming, tobogganing down the scale by Young and Woody Woodpecker-like pops from Bynum. Short tremolo sparring between Braxton and Bynum signals the widely vibrating piece’s conclusion.

Positive interaction, technical facility and split-second responses characterize both CDs. Each confirms the skills of Braxton and associates in the small group format.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Trio: 1. Composition No 323c

Personnel: Trio: Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn, trompbone, piccolo and bass trumpets, shells and mutes); Anthony Braxton (sopranino, soprano, alto, baritone, bass and contrabass saxophones and electronics) and Mary Halvorson (guitar)

Track Listing: Moscow: 1. Composition No 367b 2. Encore

Personnel: Moscow: Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn, piccolo and bass trumpets and valve trombone); Anthony Braxton (sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones and contrabass clarinet); Katherine Young (bassoon) and Mary Halvorson (guitar)