Democracy is alive and well, or at least it was on the stage of the Iridium under the beneficent gaze of maestro Anthony Braxton at the end of March 2007. While Braxton is responsible for choosing the primary compositions for his ensemble and starting and finishing proceedings, guided by his giant hourglass, he bestows equal authority upon his collaborators as to how they choose to navigate between the two points. He likens this model to the U.S. political system, where individual states operate autonomously under the umbrella of the federal government. If this sounds somewhat academic, the resultant music was anything but in its braying excitement and casual virtuosity.
Braxton had brought his septet, or rather Sextet+1, to the Iridium for four nights as an encore to his already legendary engagement at the same venue in 2006, documented on the massive 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 box set (Firehouse 12, 2007). The core band—Taylor Ho Bynum on assorted brass, Jay Rozen on tuba and euphonium, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Aaron Siegel on percussion, Carl Testa on bass and bass clarinet, and Jessica Pavone on viola, violin and bass guitar—was augmented by a changing cast of guests, drawn largely from Braxton’s graduate students, each night. The added firepower increased both the complexity and the options available within the ensemble. Over the four nights, the youthful band essayed an enthralling ensemble music combining jazz, contemporary classical music, and all points in between, in a display which defied genre categories and sounded completely unlike anything else. This sextet is the nearest thing Braxton has to a working ensemble and, together with related line-ups using the same cast, to my mind represents yet another peak in his creativity, equal to the classic quartets of the seventies and late eighties/early nineties.
Each hour-long set was centred on a single piece from Braxton’s self-styled “Ghost Trance Music”—a compositional framework, which allows integration of any other of Braxton’s compositions, along with great space for individual expression, within the narrative of the main piece. The ensemble would follow the score in unison for the first five minutes or so, before spinning off in a dizzying quilt of interlocking and overlapping episodes by subsets of the group, based on graphic or standard notated material or improvisations, none lasting longer than three or four minutes. Alliances would form and briefly follow their individual courses before disassembling and reforming in new unions, exploring all possible instrumental combinations, a gambit expanded to virtually limitless possibilities by the multi- instrumentalism of almost everyone in the band. Come to think of it, the Italian political system with its never-ending series of ephemeral coalitions might be a better simile than the U.S. governance system. Braxton himself stood amidst a veritable saxophone showroom, switching between alto, soprano, sopranino, baritone, bass and contrabass saxophones: the latter three on stands which he manhandled into position, occasionally coming perilously close to toppling off the stage amidst the thickets of brass tubing.
The music evolved like something from a sci-fi movie laboratory, where speeded-up, catalytic transformations took place, producing new species at a bewildering rate. Such organized chaos is only possible with musicians as skilled as these, sufficiently schooled in Braxton’s methods to be able to meld staggering improvisational prowess with the ability to pilot through the complex charts. Watching the drama unfold, a spectator could only guess as to which of the musicians might take the lead in setting the direction for at least part of the ensemble, cueing in their colleagues by use of hand signals, whiteboards or simply waving scores. In other words, Braxton doesn’t know what additional composition will be introduced, when, how or by whom. He frequently stood listening, nodding his head: a priestly master alchemist sagely overseeing his acolyte-lab assistants. Rarely was the whole ensemble playing at the same time—those not playing would be plotting another interjection and either wait until one of the current episodes drew to a close or choose the best moment to unleash their respective fancies. It was great fun to observe the communication and interaction, and this visual element helped the listener make sense of the shifting musical sands.
Standout passages were too frequent to enumerate, but some stuck in the mind, such as Siegel’s ferocious drum solo on the first night, which was initially accompanied by Testa blowing bird calls through a megaphone, but suddenly joined by Bynum hooting into a conch shell and Rozen blowing a small horn, inspiring guest Nicole Mitchell to add eerie vocal wailings, evoking a rainforest of sound. Or the bluesy trio of Pavone, Testa and Braxton on alto, with a smile of satisfaction on Testa’s face at the rightness of the moment. Or the secret strategy hatched by Testa and Bynum on the third night, when they launched into a theatrical reading of the dialogue from Braxton’s Composition 173: “Wait a minute people, I know these territories like the back of my hand. We can’t save time that way. “What about the short cut through Landsberg.” “No way people, count me out on this one.” This surprise tactic elicited a sign of approval from Braxton and energized the whole performance, which developed into, by common consensus, the standout set of the four-night run. On another occasion, after a great struggle to shuffle the huge contrabass saxophone into position, Braxton subverted expectations by expounding extreme squeaks in the bat register, before unleashing a more typical stentorian galumphing over a serene electronic soundscape. There was a delightful passage with Siegel on xylophone, Pavone repeating an electric bass line and a whistle from Testa, enticing Bynum to whistle along and Kyle Brenders and Braxton to hit the altissimo register on soprano and alto saxophones respectively.
There was room for solos too amidst the dense ensemble play, with Braxton and Bynum the most sparkling protagonists, but with everyone in the ensemble taking opportunities to shine. Extended technique was everywhere: at one point Rozen spun his euphonium 360 degrees without interrupting his flow, at others he generated almost electronic timbres by introducing a foil pie dish into the bell of his tuba. Bynum was effervescent: using mutes to vocalise his lines and at times evoking Ellingtonian textures with his wah wah expressiveness. Braxton’s distinctive voice frequently emerged from the mix, with growls, whimpers and multiphonics, as well as his typical high-speed leaping runs. Braxton had explained that the guests were invited to give them the experience of playing in front of a NYC audience. Those who made the most telling contributions were not surprisingly among the more seasoned: Nicole Mitchell, Matt Bauder and Matthew Welch.
Each of the eight sets was gloriously different yet, at the same time, all of a piece, truly part of a melody that never ends, as Braxton has characterised his “Ghost Trance Musics.” It was deeply affecting to see Braxton, at an age when many might be tempted to rest on their laurels, still driving relentlessly and uncompromisingly forward, energized and pushed by his young colleagues, in pursuit of his vision. His trust in his collaborators was amply rewarded, as they took his music in new and varied directions while staying true to his conception. Each set was recorded, so might we see another box set emerge? We can only hope so. There was enough detail in the music laid down over the four nights to repay months of in-depth re- listening.
|Recording Date||Apr 1, 2007|
|Location||Iridium, New York City|
Anthony Braxton Septet + 2
Anthony Braxton: reeds
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Jon Rosenberg.