At seventy-six years of age, perhaps no living musician has done more to explore and interrogate the worlds of improvisation and the avant-garde more than Anthony Braxton. He has constructed an entire world of music all his own from a seemingly endless amount of recordings and academic material, trying to get to the heart of music as he sees it. His work can be intimidating and at times exhausting in the best possible way. Diving into his obsessive musical explorations can be an addictive experience, and there is never an endpoint for those who want to keep going down Braxton’s rabbit hole.
Case in point: Braxton has two monumental releases coming out in June of 2021. First was the June 4 release of 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017, via Firehouse 12 Records. This is out as a Blu-Ray audio disk and features over 11 hours’ worth of music, exploring his Language music. This will be followed next week by Quartet (Standards) 2020, a 13-CD set of live performances by his quartet, exploring the standard repertoire in concerts recorded last January.
Each release is startling in both scope and intricacy, and each deserves prolonged exploration. The following reviews serve more as an introduction rather than a comprehensive analysis. There’s enough here to contemplate for years, and we will be grappling with the totality of Anthony Braxton’s project for decades to come.
There are two pathways into Braxton’s music, the first being the intellectual. To view 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 through this lens we must grapple with Braxton’s concept of Language Musics and also the compositional modalities he uses, which he refers to as Holistic Modeling Musics. The Language Music seems to frame how a musician articulates, with various options being trills, accented long sounds, multiphonics, and so on. Meanwhile, each category of Holistic Modeling Musics is linked with one of the Language Musics, and guides the musicians in how they interact with a piece. Confused yet?
The ZIM music deals with aspects of the music that continually change, for example, getting darker and darker, faster and faster, et cetera. This esoteric approach to composition certainly provides an endless rabbit hole for those who want to dive in. It’s interesting to listen to how musicians of the caliber that Braxton recruits for performances tackle such heady material. But this approach isn’t for every listener.
What, then, do the ZIM compositions offer the more casual listener, at least to the extent that anyone listens to this kind of avant-garde music casually? When one listens to these long-form compositions, they are bound to become lost in the sonic worlds that burst forth from the recordings. Any attempt to follow along, looking for the intellectual logics governing the performance, will become obscured by the listening experience in itself.
The pieces range in length from just over forty minutes to well over an hour, and each is full of activity, even while maintaining a sound that tends towards the sparse. There are always little phrases bursting forth from one instrument or another. When several musicians begin to play together, it proves to be a major event. The sounds swarm and congeal, only to split apart again. As the ensemble movements dissipate, the individual voices go their separate ways.
These pieces show Braxton at his most idiosyncratic as a composer. The music is too abstract to be jazz, too composed for free improv, yet too improvised to be some sort of modern composition. The instrumentation, with its mix of brass and harps (plus accordion) is equally ambiguous. These are simply sound worlds to be experienced. The effect is almost visual, but more like experimental film than any sort of narrative movie. Every line and chord here is a wash of color, a shape contrasted against the ever-present background of silence.
This music provides no easy foothold for grasping its content, but the hard work is its own reward. How often are we used to our media providing the meaning of its content, and requiring little effort on the part of the consumer? With Braxton’s music, the listener creates the meaning, and must make the long journey to understanding. It’s an experience which doesn’t really end, and with over eleven hours of music, the listener will never run out of sounds to contemplate.
If the ZIM music is Anthony Braxton at his most challenging, then his long-standing fascination with standards serves as an olive branch of accessibility within his discography. This latest release finds Braxton touring with Alexander Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass and Stephen Davis on drums. Recorded just before the COVID-19 lockdowns, this box set consists of sixty-seven tracks taken from nine performances in Wels, London and Warsaw.
While there is no doubt this music is much more approachable than most of his work, Braxton’s approach still seeks and finds opportunities to push far beyond the tunes’ normal boundaries. Often, the quartet will approach a song on its own terms, but slowly weave in more complex nuances as the performances evolve. On “Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West,” things begin straightforwardly enough, but Hawkins’ piano solo slowly presses against the harmonic structures that underpin the tune. One moment he evokes Thelonious Monk, the next his pointillistic phrases possess a modern classical quality. When Braxton returns with his horn, the song settles back in to a more conventional mode. His solo, though, also finds its way outside. He and his cohorts weave in and out of the song, almost inhaling and exhaling together.
This approach aptly describes their methodology throughout these fabulous performances. There is a tightrope walk between their reverence for the material and their deeply ingrained avant-garde sensibilities. Their skill set is impressive in either mode, but perhaps they are most impressive in the seamless transitions from one to the other.
There’s also a wide variety of material present. “Old Friends” serves as a short, five-minute piece of piano atmospherics while Wayne Shorter’s “Virgo” is transformed from a ballad to a irreverent, uptempo burner and stretched out to an epic twenty-minute workout. The group bounces from the old to the new and back again, from songs from the Great American Songbook, to slightly more modern tunes from Andrew Hill and Charles Mingus, through songs by Paul Simon and Disney tunes. The quartet displays a mastery of all the material.
Much like with the ZIM music, there’s enough intellectually stimulating technique present for anyone who wants to pull on that thread. There are times when the Language Musics assert themselves into the more outside moments. Other times, he uses his conception of Pulse Music to great effect, where one musician plays a rhythmic phrase against the performance of the rest of the band. While technically intriguing for the intuitive listener, these conceptually motivated techniques are nevertheless stunning in building tension throughout.
This quartet box set of standards is the perfect complement to the ZIM release. Braxton’s music feels all-encompassing; it’s jazz and not-jazz, there’s melody and abstraction, pure emotion and academic theory. And while these releases alone might seem to be an intimidating amount of material to try and absorb, they are really just the tip of the iceberg. His discography is hundreds of releases deep, and more and more in recent years he seems to prefer to issue box sets rather than albums. But once Braxton has his hooks in you, you’ll never want to stop exploring.
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