Back in the early 90s when YHB was exploring jazz and becoming a confirmed admirer of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and, especially, John Coltrane, efforts were made to tap into more challenging "free jazz" performers such as Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton. In each case, getting into these masters of modern muisc proved to be much harder than the delving into the others mentioned above.
Having said this, the Braxton album that was purchased, Six Compositions: Quartet, released on the Antilles subsidiary of Island Records in 1982, did start off with a, for Braxton, very accessible and swinging "Composition 40B," written in 1976. It has, perhaps, Braxton's most melodic head arrangement and the band, composed of bassist Mark Helias, pianist Anthony Davis and drummer extraordinaire Ed Blackwell, are tight, focused and, truly, swinging. As for the leader, his soloing on the alto saw is typically jagged, innovative, and free-ranging.
What follows is a slower tempo, freer, and more abstract "Composition 69N," but the harmonization between the instruments, even the piano which doesn't use a hard chordal approach to dictate the flow, but is more fluid, is remarkable. Particularly impressive to this listener is how Braxton, as a composer, juxtaposes the sounds of the quartet, using a soprano sax for a lighter, though still characteristically gritty, sound countered beautifully by Helias' apparently bowed bass.
The sing-song opening of "Composition 34" features a very cool bass riff from Helias, while Blackwell demonstrates his talents on the cymbals, especially when he rolls off "showers" of sound during the course of the piece, and then Braxton tears into rapid runs on his alto, while Davis usually plays in unison or comps in a free manner that follows Braxton's riffing and soloing. This track is a highlight of the record.
Composition 40A is another slow-tempo and abstract work, with Blackwell's shimmering cymbal work beautifully done and then more excellent harmony between Braxton and Davis, while Helias provides excellent low-end rhythmic support that is plucked and bowed. When Davis solos, it is with a light touch, but with great complexity and agility.
"Composition 40G" has more precise harmonization between the leader, playing the deep, rich toned contrabass clarinet, and the pianist, while, again, Blackwell uses shimmering cymbal textures and Helias bows his bass for most of the tune. An abstract moodiness pervades the piece, especially as Braxton works the low end of the tonal range on his instrument and Blackwell makes an economical, but striking (!) use of mallets along with the washes of his cymbals.
The finale is "Composition 52" which goes back to a faster tempo, more tight harmonization between Braxton, again on alto, and Davis and another pretty memorable melodic line, interspersed with Braxton's compellingly jagged riffing. About a minute in he launnches into a fantastic solo, while the rhythm section gives him excellent support and space to issue his flights of fanciful playing, demonstrating why he is truly one of the great saxophonists in music. Davis then offers a very satisfying solo and Helias and Blackwell display an excellent interplay behind him. Braxton comes back in for about the last minute and the band's tightness carries through to the end. It's a great way to cap a tremendous record, but it's too bad this excellent quartet only worked this one occasion.
Six Compositions: Quartet was an opportune way to get introduced to the music of Anthony Braxton. Another good entry point would be his 1987 album of Thelonious Monk pieces with the great Mal Waldron on piano and former Cecil Taylor sideman, Buell Neidlinger, on bass. That album will be covered here at some point.
This blogger does not pretend to understand the nuances of Braxton's highly complex formulations that actually involve schematic drawings as titles along with the generic "Composition XX" signification. His philosophy (or the plural) of music is, however, fascinating to read about and then try to follow when listening to his enormous catalog of works. Having just finished Ronald Radano's book about Braxton, New Music Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique (which is often as dense, complicated and hard to penetrate as the subject's music), there is no way for YHB to be able to state with much confidence that the intellectual understanding of the music is any clearer. Soon to be read is Graham Lock's Forces in Motion, which sits in a box waiting to be picked up.
One of the remarkable facets of Braxton's work is that he has both a modernist classical repertoire and one featuring his unique approach to jazz ensemble and solo work. This is another reason to question why labeling musicians as "jazz" or "classical" or specifically "free jazz" and "modernist" is so important to so many listeners. Braxton is a polymath in composition types, the use of various reeds (and plays piano, among other instruments), and how he seeks to utilize science, mathematics, and spirituality into his often-complicated, but fascinating pieces.
It takes effort, but hearing Braxton's work, which span decades and many stylistic variations, is a worthwhile exercise in expanding the horizons of music, if the listener is willing to avoid trying to studiously to "understand" intellectually what is being done. To paraphrase Albert and Donald Ayler's 1960s recommendation, mentioned here before, "try to follow the sounds, not the notes." This is especially good advice when listening to the great Anthony Braxton!