Anthony Braxton

Quartet (Warsaw) 2012
ForTune 0020

By Ken Waxman

True appreciation of Anthony Braxton’s music must come with the understanding that the only reference points for it are often other Braxton works. That said it’s also important to remember that there is no definitive Braxton style any more than there was an exclusive Duke Ellington or Sun Ra style. A musical omnivore, Braxton’s influences range over jazz, modern notated music, pure improvisation and electronics.

The provocative “Composition 363b+” that takes up all of Quartet (Warsaw) 2012 for instance, appears to be a step away from his recent repetitively tremolo Ghost Trance and Falling River musics. Instead it relates to his sessions from the ‘70s where a stringed instrument would provide the continuum, with the top – not front – line consisting of improvising expressions from Braxton plus another reed or brass player. Featuring violinist Erica Dicker, alto saxophonist James Fei and long-time Braxton aide-de-camp cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, plus the composer on alto and tenor saxophones, this composition approaches that earlier style. However real-time electronic processing generated by SuperCollider supplies the tense, crackling ostinato here.

From cacophonous to chromatic, the narrative is pulled many ways during its 70-minute running time, with multiphonic themes coexisting, but never blending and contradictory tempos and textures propelled onwards. Nevertheless, besides the truculent extended techniques applied to all the participants’ instruments, needed to negotiate the twists and turns of Braxton’s composition, the signal processing leaves space for the soloist to expose moments of unexpected beauty. For example at some points Bynum’s muted flutter tonguing creates a shimmering tonic arc which is in stark contrast to the brassy smears and sour triplets he exhibits elsewhere. Dicker too puts aside her spiccato string plucking and multi-string bow slices in one of the composition’s final sequences to outline a gossamer romantic motif. Frantic and calm passages follow one another in a characteristic manner, as the horns often cunningly harmonize just long enough to prepare the sequence for a distinctive Braxton solo filled with sharp-tongued reed bites and split tones.

These sorts of instantaneous contrasts have been part of jazz’s vocabulary since at least the bebop era – albeit in a less extreme fashion. Plus a half century after Free Jazz and Ascension quivering harshness shouldn’t upset anyone. Tellingly, and perhaps nose-thumbing at those who still doubt Braxton’s commitment to the jazz canon, one saxophonist – again probably Braxton –briefly quotes “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” just before the widening echoes that have previously characterized the theme smooth out and complete the track. It’s this constant musical conflict which makes Braxton such a challenging player and composer, and which makes each of his works, this one included, demanding of careful listening.

Tracks: Composition 363b+

Personnel: Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet; Anthony Braxton: alto and tenor saxophones; James Fei: alto saxophone; Erica Dicker: violin

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2014