Tuesday, July 10, 2018

CD Review: Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio



Anthony Braxton
Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio
(hatOLOGY) hathut.com

How is a person to assess a new Anthony Braxton disc? Its merit be calculated in comparison to other albums in the vast Braxton discography. Perhaps it should be looked at in tandem with other sets that reveal a certain compositional approach that the multi-reedist was using at the time. Or perhaps, the personnel should be the starting point.

Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio, a reissue of material originally released sometime in the year after it was recorded, comes not too many months after Sextet (Parker) 1993, the 11-disc set of Charlie Parker compositions Braxton played with a never-to-convene-again group of forward-thinking players. Considering that the humongous collection might be enough Braxton to last the average listener the full year,  the above questions about criteria might be in order.

This two-CD seat features one of his most celebrated quartets, with bassist Mark Dresser, pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerry Hemingway. A few tracks feature Braxton working with "C-class prototypes," where each band has an individual track of repeating material that they follow. There are also a few pieces that include band members playing different compositions than the rest of the quartet (indicated by the composition number in parenthesis). When the whole group shifts into another piece, a plus sign indicates the new number.

A few compositions that feature the repeating lines, between improvised passages, can get a little unnerving. "Compositions 158 (+96) + 40L" and "Composition 159" both can sound more like they're built on repetitive saxophone lines rather than a tag followed by rapid improvisations. The latter especially features a recurring set of high notes on the alto that can be hard to take.

Of course there is so much going on in the music beside the leader's horn that it's often possible to latch onto something from the rest of the band. Additionally, Graham Lock's liner notes give detailed direction to the entire set. It might be hard to see the connection between
(the illustration that Braxton assigns to "Composition 160") and the music itself, but half the pleasure lies in making that connection. Besides, Dresser offers some vicious bowing in the solo.  Likewise,
("Composition 161") sounds more ominous than the image of three friends playing pool, though the composer says the trio is talking about "their feelings of pessimism" which is evoked by Dresser's arco work and Braxton's contrabass clarinet. Regardless of the imagery, it has a beautifully, haunting quality.

The set also revisits works from earlier albums. After some improvisation that sounds like a chamber group guided by Braxton's flute, they go into "23C" the cumulative song from his first Arista album, which takes the repetition in a deeper direction, adding more melody to the song with each run through. The quartet follows that with two more compositions before the piece concludes after a hearty 23 minutes. "40M," from his next Arista album (Five Pieces 1975) gives the entire quartet a lot of open space, from Hemingway's opening drum declaration to Crispell's explosive solo to Braxton's shrapnel-throwing alto. All of it is pulsed by Dresser's groove.

While it's all extremely heady work, this two-disc package comes off as a very inviting set of music that should appeal to both longtime Braxton fans and newcomers.

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