Anthony Braxton / Taylor Ho Bynum / Kevin Uehlinger / Keith Witty / Noam Schatz

April 7, 2003

Duets (Wesleyan) 2002

Innova 576

Four Compositions (GTM) 2000

Delmark 544

Reedist Anthony Braxton is the true theoretician of abstract jazz notation. Throughout his more than 30-year compositional career, he has invented many terms and genre names for his music. Given his unique combinations of numbers and illustrations, some of them could probably unhinge information retrieval specialists familiar with the intricacies of the Dewey Decimal System and many search engines.

Although his present academic position — Braxton’s now head of the music department at Wesleyan University — seems to have convinced him to now rely solely on composition number, subsets still exist. For instance, FOUR COMPOSITIONS (GTM) 2000, is a quartet version of the Ghost Trance Music (GTM) he has been writing since the late 1980s; DUETS (WESLEYAN) 2002, is an example of post-Ghost Trance sounds.

DUETS is most noteworthy because it’s the first time Braxton, who is endlessly cooperative when playing in groups that range from duos to large orchestras, has recorded in duo with a trumpeter, despite long associations with Wadada Leo Smith and Kenny Wheeler. Also, unlike the three younger musicians on FOUR, who function more-or-less as a conventional (!) rhythm section, brassman Taylor Ho Bynum– who actually plays cornet here — is treated as Braxton’s full partner. Three of the six compositions are his as well.

This is pretty heady stuff for someone approximately 30 years younger than Braxton. Still, the cornetist is a gigging musician, who has earned kudos for his combo work with cellist Jeff Song and as part of the Fully Celebrated Orchestra — which is actually a quartet — plus his contributions to larger aggregations led by such luminaries as Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon.

Former Braxton students all, the sidemen on FOUR are fine players, but none has yet made as individual a mark as Bynum has. That will probably have to wait for the future, as they, like Lennie Tristano’s many acolytes, get enough distance — both physical and musical — from their guru to create individualistic sounds.

Another notable feature that characterizes the two CDs, is that by today’s standards at least, they don’t sound particularly far out. This will probably shock the legion of Braxton detractors — including a certain highly praised New Orleans-born trumpeter — but, in truth, Braxton’s performances have never been as overly intellectual and so-called difficult as they’ve been made out to be. Heck, the writing and playing on these two sessions sound as if they could easily fit in many folks’ idea of mainstream jazz.

For example “Composition 305”, the longest track on DUETS is sort of an out-of-tempo, pastoral gigue, built on intersecting horn lines. Initially Bynum produces silvery muted passages, that later turn to plunger fanfares as Braxton’s glossolalia on alto saxophone is succeeded by stomping, reverberating baritone saxophone lines. Soon, when he switches to a mellow, Swing-era clarinet tone, both musicians seem to be improvising in counterpoint, languidly playing almost the same notes octaves apart.

The baritone/trumpet combination gets another workout on “Composition 304”, with intonations again the aural mirror image of one another. Changing pitch, Braxton growls and Bynum soars, until the former’s clarinet comes out once again for some sprightly contralto messages.

This sprightly tone is also exhibited on the other disc’s “Composition 242”, where

Braxton plays lilting flute passages in unison with Baltimore-born pianist Kevin Uehlinger’s sharp timbres. This unity isn’t limited to the pianist either, for throughout the almost 69½-minute disc one or another of Braxton’s horn passages will unite with bassist Keith Witty, or be commented upon or critiqued in rhythm by Massachusetts-native Noam Schatz’s percussion arsenal.

GTM pieces combine improvisation plus written sections not only from that particular composition, but interjections from other Braxton compositions as well. None of the three sidemen on FOUR COMPOSITIONS saw their scored parts before they arrived in the studio, which makes the empathy they exhibit with the reedman all that more remarkable. Repetitive looping of the main theme may be the only part of GTM that upsets conservatives who complain about similar-sounding material. Yet in some ways, these are equivalent to the heads without which they would never start a tune.

Taking apart a pointillistic outpouring like “Composition 245” reveals what you could almost call its bebop underpinnings. Following the theme statement, and after Braxton has mixed gritty alto saxophone smears and triple tonguing with Schatz’s simple clip-clop percussion, the rhythm section morphs into a contemporary piano trio. Uehlinger chords with a carefully measured touch, the drummer turns out decorative rolls and Witty pursues a swinging bass tone. Meanwhile the reed man goes his own way, chirping out tones as he sees fit, until the rest of the band catches up to him. Sneakily, they all then reprise the theme. Isn’t that the essence of Braxton’s music — and pedagogy — finding complete freedom to be individualistic within pre-determined structures?

Establishing his individuality, the pianist provides a break from the hypnotic overtones by soloing through “Composition 244” on melodica. Polyphonically bending notes on the keyboard harmonica, he produces an accordion-like tone that commingles with booming, sonorous baritone snorts. Schatz counters by introducing resonating tones from vibraharp and all the sonic space cleared gives Witty sufficient room to stretch his bass strings. Considering sounds on the keyboard harmonica can only be produced by exhaling, not inhaling, Uehlinger speed on the plastic instrument is almost miraculous. Ending in unison with Braxton’s alto, this offers yet more proof that these GTM compositions provide enough space for individual expression.

Of course, Bynum’s distinctiveness is showcased even more on DUETS when the two play his compositions and an on-the-spot improvisation. That instant composition concerns itself most with extended, elongated flurries of notes from the cornetist and noodling alto sax trills, often in pure concert tone from Braxton. His execution may be louder and more diffuse than you’d get from a classical sax player like Paul Brodie, but his breathing and pausing for breath prove his investment in the creation.

Unsurprisingly, as a student and admirer, Bynum’s compositions have a tangible Braxtonian cast about them. But he’d never be characterized as a junior Braxton. On “All Roads Lead to Middletown”, (Connecticut home to Wesleyan), for instance, he offers up a mixture of high-pitched lines that intersect with the alto saxophone’s stuttering split tones. Much lighter and cleaner sounding than dense GTM, the tune finds the cornetist pushing out a mid-range, legato tone, with Braxton following his lead and making sure that a counterpoint unison exists between the two.

This is also clear on the near stasis of the appropriately-titled “To Wait”, that uses sea shore sounds created with Bynum’s manipulated shells, near inaudibility in certain passages and reverberating saxophone tones to paint its sound picture.

Finally there’s “Scrabble”, which rather than celebrating a passive word game, comes across as a very physical, sopranino and cornet blend in march tempo. Following an unaccompanied outing by Braxton, Bynum likely showcases his trumphone for plunger work as the sax man turns to edgy multiphonics, complete with high-pitched smears, whinnying and rhino horn snorts. As a final surprise, the two meld together at the penultimate point, sweetly echoing one another.

As is probably obvious, these two fine sessions should appeal to more than Braxton true believers. Not only do you get to sample a half dozen of his compositions, but you also get to trace the ascending trajectory of one brass man/performer/composer and get to catalogue three new names for further study.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Duets: 1. Composition 304 2. Scrabble 3. To Wait 4. All Roads Lead to Middletown 5. Improvisation 6. Composition 305

Personnel: Duets: Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, trumpbone, shell and mutes); Anthony Braxton (sopranino, soprano, F alto, Eb alto and baritone saxophones, Eb, Bb and contralto clarinets)

Track Listing: Four: 1. Composition 242 2. Composition 243 3. Composition 244 4. Composition 245

Personnel: Four: Anthony Braxton (Eb and Eb soprano, F alto, alto and baritone, bass and contra-bass saxophones,); Kevin Uehlinger (piano); Keith Witty (bass); Noam Schatz (percussion)