Reviewing music by Anthony Braxton is a tough assignment. Often impenetrable and something of a horse-hair shirt for the ears, this is the kind of music that probably gets talked about more than it gets listened to. An acquired taste, my past involvement with the avant-garde probably stood me in good stead where others would have run for the hills.
I've never doubted his importance as a theorist, and when his chops are in good shape there's no doubting the heights he can scale either. He's broken many moulds in his time, yet his music demands patience and sometimes a big leap of faith from the listener.
I'm posting this now because Braxton plays in London on Sunday with Cecil Taylor. After the Tour de France, could it be the biggest show in town this weekend...?
Ninetet (Yoshi’s) 1997 Vol 2
LEO RECORDS (LR 382/383)
Composition No 209; Composition No 210
Anthony Braxton (as, ss, cmel, f, cl, bcl, cbcl); Brandon Evans (ts, ss, sno, bcl, f); James Fei (as, ss, bcl); Jackson Moore (as, bcl); Andre Vida (ts, as, ss, bs); J. D. Parran (ss, bsx, f); Kevin O’Neal (g); Joe Fonda (b); Kevin Norton (d, vib).
Anthony Braxton’s music has never been easy, but there’s no doubt that he’s been the most consistently forward-looking member to have emerged from Chicago’s AACM. His seminal For Alto (1968) remains a touchstone for anybody attempting a solo saxophone recording, and his many great quartets stand as high watermarks in avant-garde jazz.
Yet Braxton is a man who thrives on radical change and renewal, and when he unveiled his Ghost Trance Music in 1995 I recoiled in horror, thinking he’s found the perfect musical cul-de-sac. For those yet to make its acquaintance, Ghost Trance is a highly repetitious exploration of a minimal cycle of notes, played over a theoretically infinite duration as a series of slowly evolving cells.
The intention behind Ghost Trance is for the performer to reach a heightened state of concentration and awareness, though as a listener it first struck me as extremely stiff and ultimately boring. Recorded some two years after that inauspicious first encounter, Volume 2 of the Braxton Ninetet’s August 1997 residency at Yoshi’s shows a clear method in what I had first thought to be pure madness.
In just two years the music seems to have undergone drastic refinement and now sounds unmistakably like Braxton, an extension of his ever evolving ‘continuum’. ‘Composition 209’ and ‘Composition 210’ both share the manic staccato phrasing that first drove me to despair, but there is now more space for individuals to emerge from the ensemble, and more discernible shifts and motifs are deployed.
The ensemble never waver from the challenge posed by the work’s duration, and the reed-heavy composition of the group suits Braxton’s intricate style. Now combining hard blowing in the conventional sense with an exploration of the limits of a certain theoretical possibility, the music becomes almost appealing.
Reservations remain about stiffness, but Braxton has once again undeniably found a new angle on jazz. Neatly presenting two whole compositions, and with a good live recording sound, open-minded listeners yet to reach the ghost trance state of mind should seek this one out.
(Jazz Review, February 2004)