Anthony Braxton: 20 Standards, 4 Improvisations, 2 + 2 Compositions, Live at the Royal Festival Hall
For almost 40 years, Anthony Braxton has defined and been defined by all manner of elements present in what many in his generation choose to call creative music; yet, even this fairly inclusive categorization does little justice to a man whose discography is as diverse, but somehow unified, as it is daunting.
20 Standards is the latest in what seems to be an increasing number of such entries in the Braxton discography and is a companion piece to last year's four-disc 23 Standards, recorded on the same 2003 tour and using the same musicians. The set is confrontational precisely because it caters to no purist mentality. The lightness of timbre achieved by this pianoless group fosters timbral clarity while evoking a strange nostalgia for every stereotype associated with '50s "cool . This aesthetic is especially satisfying on the quartet's rendering of "Take Five where the head is played with obvious allegiance, in contrast to Braxton's seminal early '70s barnstormings of "Donna Lee and "Nefertiti . Stuart Broomer's liners point to minimal rehearsals for these shows and this might account for some apparent discomfort during the head of "Blue Rondo Ala Turk , but as usual, the improv sections are engaging and often surprisingly visceral, even when the decibels are kept down. Check out the gorgeously understated version of "Lonnie's Lament , where an improv section consisting of bells and arco bass work complement the tune's inherent serenity. Also noteworthy is a ripping rendition of "On Green Dolphin Street with a searingly Coltrane-esque soprano intro.
Braxton has always blended composition and improvisation convincingly and on his duet set with Argentinean composer/pianist Walter Frank 4 Improvisations (Duets) 2004, he finds a kindred spirit. Frank demonstrates fine chops throughout with ears to match; the end of the first duet, where both players come to rest on an A-flat, could not have been executed more perfectly. This is certainly not an isolated moment, as all manner of symbiosis is on show throughout these four lengthy improvisations. Frank's brand of spontaneous composition embraces Bartok's rhythmic thrust and parry, Stockhausen's timbral innovations and a deep sense of blues as feeling, almost as if it was a function of trans-cultural collective experience. It permeates long-form gesture rather than simply informing any one moment and Braxton responds with starkly empathetic human cries and long swirling passages of intricately carved melody. At any moment, the duo might plumb the depths of a single major chord or race through staccato rhythmically driven rigidities reminiscent of Braxton's Ghost Trance compositions and each allows lots of room for the other to solo without destroying the joint dynamic. Their combined vocabularies are so vast that any blow-by-blow or summation is futile, but Frank is certainly one to watch; given that this is his debut recording, more from him is eagerly anticipated.
As for Braxton's own compositions, there is an increased attention to timbre, to the spaces around individual timbres, as evidenced by the clarity of purpose and execution in the improvised sections of his standards interpretations. The collaborative disc with Matt Bauder, 2 + 2 Compositions, features two pieces from the recent Falling River Musics series, an intentionally vague structure that still produces strikingly focused results. The sonic world is similar to one inhabited by the Bauder compositions on this disc, a far cry from those more minimal ventures from Bauder's previous disc Weary Already of the Way. Charlie Wilmoth cites AMM as a possible precursor but the disc is more a kind of Spontaneous Music Ensemble revisitation. Lovely sinewy long tones shock and rebound against what Terry Day has lovingly called "plinky-plonk music , indebted to Webern or Stockhausen's approach to serial composition, all shot through with those beautiful long effortless Braxton lines. When pulse is present it is elusive and momentary, leaving room for spare but dynamic bursts of pointilistic interplay.
The 50-minute "Composition 343 on the Festival Hall disc is both denser and more overtly melodic, a mixture of majestically cyclic proportionality and Mingusian ensemble writing. Incongruously but aptly, it's also light, extremely transparent and almost ethereal, each phrase darting instantly away to make room for the next. Ironically, ambiguity may be the piece's unifying element. Is that a "Giant Steps allusion in the third-based opening? This is certainly possible given Braxton's explorations of 'the tradition' and does Braxton quote "All the Things You Are later in the piece? Whatever ingredients are semipresent, the BBC recording is first-rate, allowing for each detail to exist inside but never overshadowing the sharp but glassy-brittle ensemble work. "343 sums up the aesthetics of these new discs and Braxton's recorded career - the fluidly elusive dialectic of composition and improv, a generous mixture of trans-geographical musical concerns and the middle way between density and clarity.
Tracks and Personnel
20 Standards (Quartet) 2003
Tracks: All the Things You Are; Lines for Lions; April in Paris; Green Dolphin Street; Blues for Alice; Alone Together; Waltz for Debbie; For Heaven's Sake; Freedom Jazz Dancel lThe Song Is You; The Duke; I Love You; Lonnie's Lament; Blue Rondo à la Turk; Invitation; Tune Up; Remember; Moonlight in Vermont; Take Five; Serenity.
Personnel: Kevin O'Neil: guitar; Kevin Norton: percussion; Andy Eulau: bass; Anthony Braxton: reeds.
4 Improvisations (Duets) 2004
Tracks: Track 1; Track 2; Track 3; Track 4.
Personnel: Anthony Braxton: reeds; Walter Franks: piano.
2 + 2 Compositions
Tracks: Scaffolding; Composition No.324b; Dots; Composition No.327c
Personnel: Anthony Braxton: reeds; Matt Bauder: saxophone.
(London) 2004: Live at the Royal Festival Hall
Tracks: Composition 343
Personnel: Satoshi Takeishi: percussion; Chris Dahlgren: bass; Taylor Ho Bynum: trumpet; Mary Halvorson: guitar; Anthony Braxton: reeds.