Monday, November 3, 2008

Anthony Braxton - Praise and Reservations

Anthony Braxton has long been one of my favorite musicians. He was one of the artists on the fateful Arista sampler LP that my sweet mom brought home from the junk store for me when I was 15. She would often pick up jazz records for me when she came across them while rummaging through salvage stores. She could tell by the instrumentation of this one that it must be jazz, so she bought it for me and changed my life - it was my introduction to free jazz. As a teenager trying to learn all I could about jazz, I had read about this apparently advanced form of the music, but couldn't imagine what it sounded like. Now, all of a sudden, I was confronted with Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Albert Ayler, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The AEOC track was too brief to make anything of, and the Ayler track frankly repelled me.* But the Braxton and Lake tracks appealed to me right away - they were weird, with odd note choices, but they swung like hell, and it was apparent to me that these guys knew what they were doing.

So I started exploring Braxton's music; I found a cheap (but sealed) copy of For Alto in another junk shop. And believe it or not, I enjoyed four sides of unaccompanied saxophone solos from the first hearing. I started working my way through the Arista albums that were coming out at the time, and particularly enjoyed the big band album and For Trio. I've kept up with his music and have (for the most part) been impressed by his continued growth.

But there are a couple of issues on which I'm a Braxton heretic. I know that Braxton considers himself a more of a composer than a jazz saxophonist. It first, I was only interested in his jazz work; I didn't care for his strictly composed music at all. But as time went by, I started checking it out and enjoying it more. I remember sitting down to listen to some of his four-orchestra piece and deciding in advance that I would just listen to two sides. After two (out of six) records sides, I didn't want to stop, so I kept listening.

More recently, however, I have developed real reservations about AB's compositional abilities. His composed music appeals to me far less than it used to, especially since I have become more familiar with 20th-century "classical" music. A recent listening to the four-orchestra piece had me comparing it unfavorably to Gruppen and Carre, the Stockhausen multi-orchestra works that inspired it. And going back to other Braxton compositions leads me to believe, as much as I hate to say it, that Braxton frankly does not know much about Composition with a capital C.

Over and over again his note choices seem to be arbitrary. In the music of equally "difficult" composers such as Varese, Milton Babbitt, and Braxton's hero, Stockhausen, this is not the case at all. In their music each note, even in a complex web of sound, is carefully chosen and has a point. Even if the listener doesn't "understand" the music of these composers, it's not difficult to hear, or at least sense, the unity of their compositions.

And much of Braxton's composed music doesn't really go anywhere - it starts, goes on for awhile, then stops. On the surface, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that - it's almost a description of Stockhausen's "moment form," in which whatever is happening at that moment in the piece is what's important. But Braxton's "moments" seem kind of random, and not necessarily interesting.

I know that disliking AB's composed music is not politically correct; the enlightened listener is supposed to hear all of his output as one. But I think, and I know that this is going to come out wrong, that it's not that I'm not enlightened enough, it's that I'm too enlightened. I've heard too much similar, but better, music to really enjoy Braxton's efforts at long-form composition. I see my relationship to Braxton's composed music like this: at first I didn't know enough to appreciate it, then I knew just enough to enjoy it, and now I know too much to enjoy it. In a way that's kind of sad, but I wouldn't want to go back.

The other issue on which I'm a Braxton heretic involves the direction much of his music has taken over the last ten years, and I'm not alone in my reservations here. Most of AB's output over the last decade has involved what he calls his Ghost Trance Music (GTM). While I don't totally understand what he's getting at with this style, he seems to be trying to induce a Coltrane-esque state of heightened consciousness. In practice, the music seems to consist of long series of quarter notes, interspersed at times with flurries of faster note values. I have acquired six CDs worth of this material in an effort to appreciate it, and finally have to admit that I just don't like this music. The almost constant thud of all or most of the instruments playing quarter notes together is wearing and annoying. All of the GTM albums I have contain some great playing, but overall they are plain grating.

But most of Braxton's small group music, which most listeners would refer to as his jazz work (and which he call "coordinate music"), is stunning in its invention. His mid-seventies quartets with Kenny Wheeler and George E. Lewis represent a high point, as does his later quartet with Marilyn Crispell. And a couple of new or recent CDs represent Braxton at his best: Organic Resonance is one set of a duo concert with trumpeter Leo Smith; they play compositions by both men. The second set has been issued, too, but I haven't heard it. And the very new Beyond Quantum has Braxton in a free-jazz blowing session with William Parker and Milford Graves.

I guess that Anthony Braxton has tried so many different directions that all of them can't be expected to be equally good. I'm grateful for his best music, and as for the rest - sorry I can't follow you there, AB.

*More on this in the future.

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