Anthony Braxton

Ensemble Montaigne (Bau 4) 2013
Leo Records CD LR 684

Anthony Braxton

Echo Echo Mirror House

Victo cd 125

By Ken Waxman

Whenever the controversy about what or who is or isn’t jazz is breached there’s likely no more polarizing figure than Anthony Braxton. Braxton has been so prolific in his writing and playing however that ample arguments can be mustered for both points of view. These recent CDs should add more verbiage to the discussion. Although both are well executed and absorbing, Braxton’s protean skills are such that a case can be made either way.

Ensemble Montaigne (Bau 4) was recorded this year by a 10-piece Swiss contemporary music ensemble directed by trombonist Roland Dahinden, who was Braxton’s assistant at Wesleyan University. While its 50-minute medley of six Braxton compositions plus improvisations is exciting, it sounds like through-composed music. Echo Echo Mirror House on the other hand, recorded live in 2011 at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, is played by a septet of Braxton associates, with the composer participating. Perhaps because the hour-plus “Composition No 347” allows the players to add snatches of other Braxton pieces plus incorporate still other sounds sourced from iPods, the result is as convincingly jazzy as any advanced improvised music.

Ensemble Montaigne is an orchestral piece with only brief interpolations from individuals, as the group moves through its interpretations of “Composition No 74+96+136+94+98+193+language music”. Overall the performance provides clear evidence of the consistency of Braxton’s vision no matter what he chooses to label his compositions. Without titles, it’s unlikely anyone would imagine this isn’t a single composition. That said the piece’s definition mostly results from an agitated and juddering continuum which bubbles up at different junctures, bonding parts while moving the performance linearly. At the same time the technical virtuosity of Ensemble Montaigne is such that all of its members appear outstandingly capable of performing past orchestral instruments’ comfort zones. Particularly noticeable is the string players’ ability to blend flying spiccato timbres with lyrical harmonies; plus those times where the English horn, bassoon, bass clarinet and French horn – alone or in combinations – manage to output atonal sound shards, before quickly regrouping for intermingled crescendos. By the final few minutes a new jocular theme, played by the horns, asserts itself to blend with buoyant string vibrations for an expressive finale.

Encompassing vivid stylists like Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson and Braxton himself, solo interjections are audible during “Composition No 347”, animating the already powerfully staccato creation. Upping the ante with found sounds emanating from the musicians’ iPods – include piano chamber music and near-operatic vocals – the effect is of several compositions being played simultaneously. So-called classical voicing and orchestration are prominently featured, but so are chugging band pulsations which reflect Basie a lot more than Beethoven. Plus, when it comes to the cornetist’s muted flutter tonguing, the guitarist’s tempo-transcending flanges and crunches and the saxophonist’s stuttering intensity, reference points are without doubt improvisations that derive from jazz – if they’re not jazz itself. Without question, the visceral excitement missing from the more formal Ensemble Montaigne CD is present here. Extravagantly and rousingly performed, by the penultimate sequence, the composition threatens to explode from unrelentless pressure following some frenzied contrabass clarinet lines from Carl Testa and Aaron Siegel’s glockenspiel hammering. Propitiously Braxton, Bynum and Halvorson combine with connective harmonies in the final minutes, effectively ending the piece.

With Echo Echo Mirror House vibrating with express-train-like tremolo power and Ensemble Montaigne making its points through precise tonal juxtaposition, Braxton’s musical powers are doubly confirmed. As to how you define these pieces that may be something best left to musicologists.

Tracks: Ensemble: 1. Composition No 174+96+136+94+98+193+language music

Personnel: Ensemble: Ensemble Montaigne: Martin Huber: French horn; Julianna Wetze: flutes, piccolo; Nicola Katz: clarinet, bass clarinet; Peter Vôgeli: oboe, English horn; Maurus Conte: bassoon; Claudia Kienzler, David Sontòn Caflisch: violin: Markus Wieser: viola; Céline-Giulia Voser: cello; Kaspar Wirz: bass; Roland Dahinden: director

Tracks: Echo: 1. Composition No. 347 +

Personnel: Echo: Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, bugle, trompbone, iPod; Jay Rozen: tuba, iPod; Anthony Braxton: alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones, iPod; Carl Testa: bass clarinet contrabass clarinet, iPod; Jessica Pavone: violin, viola, iPod; Mary Halvorson: guitar, iPod: Aaron Siegel: percussion, vibraphone, iPod

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2014