A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton, New York 1975                         Michael Wilderman©2007

The recent concerts by Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, William Parker and Tony Oxley are among the most important performances of the year; their August debut in London caused the press to proclaim them a “Historic Quartet.” Although Taylor, Parker and Oxley had performed many times as the Feel Trio and in other settings since the late 1980s, the concerts are considered landmarks because of the inclusion of Braxton. As incredible as it may seem, Taylor and Braxton had never performed together. Why hadn’t anyone thought about it before? Someone did – Braxton himself, and as early as 1982.

Braxton told me of his desire to play with Taylor during the 7th edition of the International Pisa Jazz Festival, which was presented between 1976 and 1983 by the Center for Research on Improvised Music (CRIM was founded and operated by Stefano Arcangeli, Roberto Terlizzi and myself, among others). During those years, an audience from all over Italy and the rest of Europe gathered in our Tuscan town to hear American musicians like Taylor and Braxton, and European musicians like Derek Bailey and Alexander von Schlippenbach, sometimes on same program, sometimes playing together. We intentionally presented the first European concerts by Milford Graves and others; sometimes it was a last-minute proposition. Due to phone misunderstandings – remember, this was before email and fax transmissions – we missed John Zorn that year, so instead of the Yankees trio with Bailey and George Lewis, we had a Braxton/Lewis/Bailey performance. We also presented musicians who worked with artists working in other disciplines; in that same edition, Lacy presented a duo with dancer and choreographer Pierre Droulers, and Maarten Altena's unforgettably exhilarating “duet” with clown Teo Joling – both had a humor that does not surface enough in jazz and improvised music.

One of the most anticipated programs that year paired Braxton and Taylor – in separate solo sets. It was an event that even caught Max Roach’s eye. A key presence in those years in Pisa, Roach not performed, but held some of the first extended conversations with the Italian audience on the concept of African-American music. Firm and determined but articulate and kind, he was enlightening for us all with his first-hand experience of jazz's turning points and with his all-encompassing knowledge of the art form. His concert took place two days before the Taylor/Braxton event, and reading the program he commented “an interesting evening this will be, wish I could be here!”

The hours leading up to the concert were extraordinary charged. Taylor had “rehearsed” onstage throughout the cloudy evening, while we were trying to decide if we had to move the concert into a horrible Sports Palace or keep it in the bucolic surroundings of the Scotto Garden, a park inside the walls of an old fortress. We gambled and we won; the music was extraordinary even by the standards of these two giants, and the audience was swept up by the special atmosphere. Taylor and Braxton talked backstage just before the start, deciding to switch sets: the pianist was eager to start after “warming up” for about three hours, and the “youngster” was happy to oblige. The audience was not only not exhausted by Taylor's concert, but eager for more, and Braxton rose to the challenge with a masterful performance based on what we later learned was his solo language system; after a long circulation among collectors, a recording of the concert has been released by Leo Records as Solo (Pisa) 1982 (LR GY 28). It was amazing for me then to hear that Taylor and Braxton had barely met before, and that backstage conversation was one of their first extended exchanges. Taylor was aware of his work, Braxton told us, and through common friends had already sent his appreciation; always the eternal student of music, Braxton had already dedicated a track of his seminal 1969 For Alto solo recording to Taylor – a blues based, energetic, technically dazzling excursion that incorporates many of the elder colleague's innovations. According to Braxton’s and my recollections, Taylor showed a surprisingly detailed interest in the music of the altoist in Pisa, and expressed his appreciation of Braxton’s integrity and determination.

It's interesting to reflect on the differences and similarities in the survival strategies of these two musicians. Their respective careers began in widely different contexts: Taylor worked in relative isolation and lacked public recognition even after Ornette arrived in New York, while Braxton received much support and inspiration from the AACM. After their emergence on record, Taylor experienced hardships and lack of work, while Braxton enjoyed a certain success and even had a contract with a major label. Despite these differences, there are obvious similarities in terms of public rejection of misguided contemporaries and in some recording episodes: In The Tradition has somehow become Braxton's Coltrane Time. Confronted with these hardships, Taylor chose to pursue his artistic research and to wait for the rest of the world to catch up with him. More than once, he went years without recording; he had to create his Unit Core label in the early 1970s to document quantum leaps in his work on LPs like Spring of Two Blue-Js – a ’73 Town Hall performance with Jimmy Lyons, Sirone and Andrew Cyrille, it is an early example of his long-form ensemble pieces – and the ’73 watershed solo album, Indent. The weight and force of his music is like a mountain rising from a desert, reminiscent of the Meroe-like pyramidal peaks towering over the rubble in the cover photograph of the LP version of Indent. It takes an inner strength, a fortified soul of steel to avoid the risk to get crunched and lost into the grueling business of bars and jazz clubs, to die of heartbreak like Scott Joplin or Herbie Nichols, a lifetime of work dispersed.

Braxton's strategy has always been different: record and publish whenever possible. As soon as a record went out of stock at the stores, there would be a new one to replace; an impressive corpus of theoretical writings and notes explaining compositions made its way into bibliographies and universities shelves. The mountain of work is there, the territory around is dotted with signs pointing to it, and listeners or scholars are confronted with a wealth of materials. Opus numbers have passed the four hundreds mark; there are way over 200 records, CDs, box sets, an opera – no, a series of twelve operas. Braxton makes it impossible to remain unheard. He invests his own money into performances and recordings which openly challenge the limits of what's “allowed” of the African-American composer or instrumentalist; challenges that come not only from society at large or the “jazz business complex,” but even from fellow musicians. It is a confrontation that Braxton has painfully described has having begun in Chicago in the 60's. Apparently, it's not over yet. It's interesting how infuriating for some Braxton can be with his air of college professor, chess geek, and dreamy scientist: his round rimless glasses and deformed cardigan are scarier than war paint and dashikis. His allegiance to “the Tristano school” was in a way more subversive than an exclusive inspiration from, say, Albert Ayler, to name a musician who has been very important for Braxton (Initially, the young Braxton apparently thought Paul Desmond was Black, having had at that point precious little interaction with Whites). As a result, many have accused Braxton of being too influenced by White musicians.

Interestingly, a lifetime of celebration of the African and Native American tradition did not save Cecil Taylor from similar indictments of the capital sin: European influences. Try turning the tables on this type of criticism in order to determine it to be valid or merely a racist reflex: Was Eric Clapton ever criticized for making a fortune copying a few licks from African American blues players (and making afterwards disparaging remarks to boot)? However, an African American “jazz” musician inspired by Bartok or Stockhausen is, ipso facto, “not Black enough,” and stands as the basis for a supposedly valid criticism. Whiteness apparently has no such boundaries: When was the last time you heard or read of a musician not being “White” enough. In fact, the opposite is true; a White musician’s ability to mimic African American music is openly used as a selling point.

Braxton made a point to explain in detail how his conception of music was shaped by Konitz/Marsh, Tristano, Kenton/Graettinger through Jack Gell and Bach through Schoenberg as well as by Ornette and Ayler; in Europe, his music with Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith (pre-Wadada) and Steve McCall undermined the idea Free Jazz was simply an extension of the Black Power and Nationalism movements more openly than with the Art Ensemble, whose relation with European avant-garde culture remains in the background – even if their Monteverdi variations are a long-ranging artistic statement in that direction.

At this point any attempt general overview of this work in article form is doomed to failure: to make it clear – it's enough to enumerate the possible chapters of a book about Braxton’s music. The solo performance and Language System, the two main quartets and the Pulse Tracks, the orchestral works, the piano compositions and performances, the tributes and special projects, the improvised meetings and ad-hoc groupings, the Ghost Trance Musics and, most recently, the Diamond Curtain Wall compositions. Each of these could have its subdivisions, but that should be enough for a general guiding idea: no pigeon-holing allowed.

Braxton's recent large Ensembles have drawn upon a nucleus of musicians he met through his teaching at Wesleyan College, who have met the challenges of his music: among them are cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, saxophonists Andrew Raffo Dewar and James Fei, violinist Jessica Pavone, and percussionist Aaron Siegel. This is not a group of mere instrumentalists with the technical means to translate a score into sound; these are full-fledged composers and improvisers who find in Braxton's music a way to grow.

The most recent example of Braxton's strategy is the stunning – in sheer size and quality – 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (Firehouse 12; reviewed in PoD Issue 11). Braxton has described this 9 CD + 1 DVD box set as the defining point in his career so far. Featuring recordings of Compositions Nos. 350 through 358, among the last in the Ghost Trance Musics series introduced over a decade ago, this is a landmark publication for several reasons. It documents an extended engagement on a New York Jazz Club stage, a rarity in itself; it features a 13-piece ensemble that can better represent the current state of strategies like the use of sectional leaders and constantly reconfiguring breakout groups to implement the mix of a composition’s primary pulse materials and the performance-specific array of secondary materials. A key element of the collection is the DVD, which includes a lecture by Braxton at Columbia University interspersed with video footage of the performances at Iridium. The lecture provides an instantaneous point of entry, as Braxton explains with great clarity and conviction the basic tenets of his music, and the snippets help identify the different characteristics of the compositions, vibrantly illustrating the composer's points in the talk. The lecture video's quality is home-made, but the important information is there and it comes through.

Personally, the regular experience of a music based on a completely different system – Turkish Classical Music, in my case – helps me enormously to get to the core of Braxton's ideas. Interestingly enough, my experience of Turkish music began seriously after a visit with Braxton at Wesleyan, which occurred just after his visit to Istanbul, where the first example of the Ghost Trance Musics was recorded (I wrote the booklet essay for the resulting CD; the text can be read at Braxton’s site: http://www.wesleyan.edu/music/braxton/braxtonhouse/bh001.html). He was extremely excited by the traditional music he heard in Turkey, and Sufism's use of music for trance was a key element in the definition of GTM. Braxton creates his own system of references, his fascinating theory shifting the orchestral paradigms from idiomatic to melodies freely developed in time. But, what is amazing here is the power of the music, so rarely attained these days. No cautions or back-thinking, these musicians go for it, exploring the structures devised by the leader by finding their own ways to trace the landscape. Any open-eared listener cannot miss the inspiring variety of textures, rhythms and forms attained by the Braxtonized musicians. A personal favorite and maybe an easier way in is “357;” its big band feeling at the beginning reaches back to Goldkette and Lunceford, and then opens into a sequel of instrumental trios and orchestrated passages spurred by the three section leaders’ interventions.

Also noteworthy is the number of females in the ensemble, which is still unusual in our music: in “357” especially striking are some small ensemble passages focused on the string/flute sound of Nicole Mitchell and Mary Halvorson with the already mentioned Pavone (trombonist Reut Regev and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck make substantial contributions elsewhere). Braxton's musical conceptions are the antithesis of the macho strutting soloist, and the balanced integration of the other half of the sky in his music is in itself an extremely meaningful achievement.

Francesco Martinelli©2007

Lee Konitz

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