Saturday, August 24, 2019

CD Review: Anthony Braxton - Quartet (New Haven) 2014

Anthony Braxton
Quartet (New Haven) 2014
(Firehouse 12)

A recent article about Anthony Braxton that appeared on Rolling Stone's website provides some good insight into the saxophonist's mindset and serves as a good primer for this four-disc set. (The interview subject and the monolithic magazine might seem totally incompatible, but writer Hank Shteamer has been taking great steps to change that.) Braxton has always been open about his wide-ranging musical tastes, my favorite one being Johnny Mathis. That topic kicks off the article, with Braxton espousing his appreciation for the work of Captain Beefheart, which impressed him so much that friends often called him "Anthony 'Beefheart Boy' Braxton." Considering his fondness for adventurous rock, it should come as no surprise that a new Braxton box set features him playing with two musicians known for their work in rock bands.

Quartet (New Haven) 2014 consists of four nearly hour long improvisations with Braxton and his long-standing bandmate Taylor Ho Bynum (trumpet) together with Nels Cline (guitar) and Greg Saunier (drums). Cline of course has a lengthy c.v. with free improvisation and jazz in addition to his tenure with the rock band Wilco. Saunier, on the other hand, is probably known best for his work with the indie rock band Deerhoof. Although the latter is more song oriented, their approach to song structure does give the impression that Saunier might be compatible in a free improv context. And he does.

The four tracks are dedicated to popular musical icons: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Merle Haggard. (Braxton claims to be a fan of all four.) Like some dedications, the music doesn't attempt to evoke the honoree's style, but to simply salute their spirit. Any detected quotes from the "Ball and Chain" feedback squall or the groove of "I Got You (I Feel Good)" are purely coincidental.

The rapport between these players is established almost immediately. Things seem to really catch fire around the 20th minute of each piece, when they seem to have a feel for the space in the music and they start to dig in. Things move along loosely but the group builds enough dynamics into the music that it never stays in one place for too long. Even moments when things start to fragment a little, the players still work in a forward motion.

Braxton switches saxophones regularly. As beautiful as his contrabass saxophone moments are - and he definitely produces a rich tone from the beast, capable of both low melodies or foundation-shaking noise - he only gives himself about two minutes at a time on the instrument. Then, with no transition,  he's suddenly onto the sopranino, soprano, alto and "regular" bass sax.. He also be a baritone sax in "Improvisation 3"while Cline plays some surf guitar.. One of other Cline's shining moments comes about 27 minutes into "Improvisation 2" when his guitar sounds like it's playing backward, measuring up against some of gruff alto saxophone. By the end of this one, the collective sound almost sounds a little nightmarish.

That being said, "Improvisation 3" might be the noisiest of the four tracks. Of the more abrasive moments, Bynum keeps repeating a shrill chromatic line ad nauseum around the mid-way mark. But in the grand scheme of the piece, it's a quick stop along the way. Later on he growls in tandem with some sopranino whinnies.

In "Improvisation 4"- which would likely leave Merle Haggard scratching his head, unless his musical tastes are as catholic as those of Braxton - Saunier seems to borrow Bynum's method at the start of the piece and whacks a rim shot repeatedly, almost sounding like his tinkering with some carpenter work while his friends play on. Before long, though, he spreads himself out across his whole kit. Cline seems conspicuously absent in the first quarter of this one, only adding some electronic freak out noises intermittently. But he eventually spends a good deal of the track running his guitar through an octave pedal, so it sounds like a bass which gives the whole thing a bit more of a center.

Braxton has collaborated with countless musicians throughout his career and has lead some groups that disbanded or altered lineups after just a short time. He initially planned to have this group play composed works. That might have been an equally productive session, but these four tracks offer a more involved answer for a "what if" question regarding such a diverse meeting of the minds.This might be a hard set to digest in a sitting or two but it's also one that needs to be heard.

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