REVIEW: Anthony Braxton Quartet at The Lantern, Colston Hall, Bristol.

Anthony Braxton at The Lantern, Colston Hall, Bristol January 2015
Photo credit: Shotaway / Chris Cooper

Anthony Braxton Quartet
(The Lantern, Colston Hall Bristol. 20th Jan 2015. Review by Jon Turney)

This was a smart booking by Colston Hall, giving us Anthony Braxton’s first UK appearance with his own group for ten years. A bold one too, perhaps, when it transpired that the only show here on a brief tour of Europe was in a provincial city, and not the largest.

Any risks taken were richly rewarded, with a near full-house in the smaller of Colston’s two spaces hearing two unbroken sets of deeply absorbing music. This was Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet, on this date featuring Mary Halvorson on guitar, Taylor Ho Bynum on assorted trumpets, and James Fei on reeds. They are all close colleagues, and it shows in the eye-blinkingly rapid conversational interaction they maintain throughout. There were scores – both Braxton’s unique graphic scores and ones with dots – but the focused cohesion these four maintain made it pretty much irrelevant what was improvised, what prepared, the only sign of the latter being occasional hand signals from the composer.

The music, delivered without preamble, is episodic, another way of saying it has tremendous variety. As soon as one mood or sound combination takes hold, it gives way to the next. It is jazz based, in large part – Braxton, approaching 70, is, after all, officially a Jazz Master now, according to the US National Endowment for the Arts. His sound and many of his melodic figures on saxes continually reference the broad jazz vocabulary – one particularly wide-ranging alto solo seemed to replay pretty much the entire saxophone tradition in miniature. Bynum’s flourishing of assorted mutes and Halvorson’s chiming guitar chords also come imbued with a jazz flavour, if one is looking for it. But there is more going on here too, with some subtle electronic shadings now and then, more abstract sounds from all four players, and a great deal of free counterpoint, two, three or four ways. And the whole thing is freed from regular rhythmic underpinning, although the implied tempos do rise and fall in what must be an organised way.

Anthony Braxton, Mary Halvorson, James Fei, Taylor Ho Bynum
The Lantern, Colston Hall, Bristol January 2015
Photo credit: Shotaway / Chris Cooper

Amid this, there are many striking moments. He is ever the prolific composer, but you get big helpings of Braxton’s own brilliant playing in the quartet, and that is by turns intense and near-lyrical, on three saxes – alto, soprano and sopranino. He does not deploy any of his bass or contrabass instruments tonight, although he reaches an impressively low register on the alto. Bynum is a fine foil, swapping horns and mutes as often as the leader, and a fountain of ideas. Many remain undeveloped, but there are plenty more to try. Fei, using the same three saxes as Braxton, has more to do to make a distinctive contribution, but uses some Aylerish shrieks to offset his purer soprano lines. Halvorson broadens the textures, her effects ranging from a near steel pan sound to the most delicate brushing of the strings.

Together they create sounds now ethereal, now turbulent, now reflective again. For me, it is music that says: don’t worry about the destination. The important thing is to be in motion, and to pay close attention as you go. A good feeling to take away from a superb evening’s sound creation.

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