[JPL] Media Alert: Anthony Braxton At The Iridium A Lesson From the Jazzmatician

Jazz Promo Services jazzpromo at earthlink.net
Tue Mar 27 15:00:29 EDT 2007

A Lesson From the Jazzmatician

March 27, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/51263

Mark Twain may not be one of the great musicologists, but he is responsible
for one of the most frequently quoted aphorisms in music criticism:
"Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

With a little tweaking, the line could also apply to the music of the
avant-garde jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, who is
making a rare appearance in a mainstream Manhattan club this week, at the
Iridium. (The music he played a year ago at the club is about to be released
in "9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006" an ambitious 10-disc boxed set from
Firehouse 12 Records.)

The 61-year-old Mr. Braxton seems to do everything possible to present his
music in a way that makes it sound serious and artsy, which is to say
foreboding and inaccessible. Even his physical appearance ‹bespectacled,
sweater-wearing, pipesmoking ‹ is outwardly academic. But when you open your
ears to what he's playing, Mr. Braxton's compositions are surprisingly
listenable. Granted, there are long interludes of screeching and shrieking
on his various horns that naught but a hardcore avant-garde admirer would
relish, but for all his academic posturing, much of his music is playful,
swinging, witty, and ‹ dare I say it? ‹ fun.

The first thing you need to know about Mr. Braxton's music ‹ much in the way
you need to know that Django Reinhardt played his guitar with only three
fingers or that Roland Kirk played three saxophones at once ‹ is that the
composer considers it too conventional to give his works traditional
grammatical titles. He not only assigns numbers to the pieces, as a
classical composer or even a mathematician might, but differentiates one
work from the other with a set of schematics. That's right: He doesn't call
his tunes "Salty Mama Blues" or "My Love Song for You." Instead, he uses
what looks like a diagram of electrical circuits in a fuse box ‹ a set of
lines, forms, and shapes intersecting in geometric patterns.

It follows, then, that the Chicago-born Mr. Braxton has spent much of his
career on campus, studying at the Chicago School of Music as a teenager and
serving on the faculty of Wesleyan College for the past two decades. He was
in the right time and place to participate in the first wave of free jazz in
Chicago and credits the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, founder
of that city's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, as one
of his key inspirations. He recorded for the first time three days after his
22nd birthday as a sideman on Mr. Abrams's "Levels and Degrees of Light."

In retrospect, the striking thing about Mr. Braxton's relationship with the
AACM is that few of those players came from what could be called an academic
background. Many of these musicians, such as the members of the
organization's most famous band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, would have
been playing Chicago-style blues or soul music had they not discovered free
jazz. Contrastingly, there is little blues relevance in Mr. Braxton's work:
He has named Charlie Parker as a major influence, but focuses on more on the
sax master's intellectual side than his mastery of 12-bar blues. Otherwise,
the precedents he has cited are a pair of piano-alto saxophone combinations
‹ Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, and Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, though
he also acknowledged a debt to such contemporary classicists as John Cage
and Karlheinz Stockhausen ‹ that were perceived as suspect in the eyes of
certain extreme members of the free-jazz fringe.

In 1968, Mr. Braxton recorded his first album under his own name, "Three
Compositions of New Jazz," which introduced his unique compositions through
an all-star quartet of multi-instrumentalists, including Mr. Abrams on
piano, Leroy Jenkins primarily on violin, Leo "Wadada" Smith on trumpet, and
the star on alto. The four players constantly switched instruments, passing
around whatever they could find and cart into the studio, including
harmonica and xylophone. The album introduced Mr. Braxton's numbered and
diagramed compositions and, in a typical move, begins atypically, with the
foursome humming and chanting like some kind of post-nuclear barbershop

Mr. Braxton's second album, "For Alto," cut a few months later, represented
another major breakthrough: It was the first full-length unaccompanied solo
album by a horn player in jazz. By the time he returned to the solo format
in 1972 on the album "Saxophone Improvisations Series F," he had refined his
approach considerably: The opener, "8F," dedicated to the chess champion
Bobby Fischer, is a series of highly coherent squeaks and squawks, whimpers,
and purrs. The second piece, contrastingly, is a surprisingly lyrical melody
rendered with a luxurious vibrato-rich tone that could almost be Benny
Carter; I can almost hear a pair of lovers whispering to each other, "Oh
darling, they're playing "26A" ‹ our song!"

Apart from Mr. Braxton, much of free jazz is rooted in the traditional
concept of horns in the front line and a rhythm section in the back. But he
starts each project with the apparent idea that an ensemble can consist of
any possible combination, from his solo alto to his enormously ambitious
music for multiple orchestras, which involve more than 100 musicians. One of
his warmest pieces is a 1971 quintet played by the London Tuba ensemble ‹
four tubas in E-flat and one in C. Equally witty is "6C," which costars the
like-minded trombonist George Lewis, in which the two horns simulate
everything from a gaggle of geese gargling at a dentists' convention to
bouncy, buoyant, almost bluesy runs that Louis Jordan could have played.

Elsewhere, Mr. Braxton has dueted with Mr. Lewis on the enormous contrabass
saxophone, written two compositions (one in two parts) for the 30-piece
Ensemble Modern Frankfurt, and composed a set of tunes for a unit of brass,
reeds, and rhythm, more like a jazz big band. Indeed, because he varies
between chordalbased bop underpinnings and completely free playing without
stopping at such halfway measures as modal playing, it is sometimes easier
to list what Mr. Braxton doesn't do in his music, such as allude to
international styles, whether from Asia, the Caribbean, or South America.
Still, it seems the only thing he hasn't done after 40 years in the business
is play a clichéé or a predictable note.

Iridium Publicist
Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services
269 S Route 94 Warwick, NY 10990
T: 845-986-1677 / F: 845-986-1699
E-Mail: jazzpromo at earthlink.net
Web Site: www.jazzpromoservices.com/

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