Andy Hamilton witnesses a rare and utterly personal UK appearance by the US saxophonist and composer, cardigan and all.
Anthony Braxton's concert at The Lantern, Colston Hall on 20 January was his first UK show for 10 years and his only performance here on his current European tour. With his Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet, the 1994 MacArthur Fellow and 2014 NEA Jazz Master synthesised intuitive improvisation and interactive electronics. Braxton (alto, soprano and sopranino saxophone) was joined by Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn, bass trumpet), James Fei (soprano, sopranino and alto saxophone, and clarinet) and Mary Halvorson (electric guitar). The quartet reacted to the graphic notation of Braxton’s Falling River Music, and to the electronic patches of the composer's SuperCollider software.
Braxton was a founding member of the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and one of the most prolific musicians in the area of jazz and improvisation, having released over 100 albums since the 1960s. His approach blurs the composition/improvisation boundary – according to one writer, he uses notation as a "generating" as well as a "recall" device, and so the composed thematic statements must be a basis for improvisation. "My music, like my life," Braxton has commented, "has been in between the black community and the white community, the jazz people and the classical people, the left and the right . . . there are continuities all over the place. We just have to come to the table with a positive disposition. And begin to put things back together again."
Braxton came on stage with the other musicians, peered at the sheet music – graphic scores I assume – then went over to power up his laptop. Bynum began on cornet, then switched to bass trumpet – which looks confusingly like a valve trombone. Braxton played flurries of notes on his alto – later he offered some duck-calls – while Halvorson glissandoed with her slide-bar. The leader had a fuller sound, especially on soprano, than I'm used to on disc, and one writer rightly referred to his "folksy melodism". The group played continuously for the first set of 45 minutes. Curtailing what looked like a long solo on alto, Braxton suddenly announced a break.
This was chamber jazz, I guess, with no bass or drums, and – as it turned out – no grooves either; it was also, much of the time, cool to hot free jazz. Especially in the second set, proceedings became more ecstatic and impassioned. Braxton made surprising references to jazz tradition – falling short of quotation – but also shot out flurries in his distinctive, spasmodic style on soprano.
Braxton certainly has his own sense of time, and whatever you think of his sound, it's utterly distinctive and personal. His playing is full on, and he broke into a sweat early in the proceedings. Braxton's laptop provided a backdrop, with space-age effects; Halvorson varied the amplification, at times sounding close to an acoustic guitar, and deploying loops and a battery of effects, in a very inventive way. Bynum varied the timbral quality with a lot of mutes, including (literally) a hat.
Braxton is an incredibly fertile, prolific musical thinker, with an almost child-like enthusiasm that's fully apparent in his stage manner. He's 69, but looks at least 10 years younger – despite the fact that he's one of the few jazz performers, certainly in the avant-garde, to perform regularly in a cardigan. It was a privilege to hear him live.
Article previously published in Jazz Journal, January 2015
Photo credit: Michael Hoefner