REVIEW-ESSAY: (2 of 3) Anthony Braxton – Quintet (Tristano) 2014 by Alexander Hawkins

Anthony Braxton – Quintet (Tristano) 2014
New Braxton House NBH905. Seven CDs. Review-Essay by Alexander Hawkins)

This second of three review-essays in which pianist/composer Alexander Hawkins considers recent major works by Anthony Braxton in depth:

Anthony Braxton’s output as a composer is prodigious and revolutionary; but it’s only an unrealistic and romanticised idea of genius which regards it as a something wholly originating within the individual. Surely the idiosyncratic spark is indeed necessary, but it finds its fullest realisation only in tandem with a deep assimilation and synthesis of context and ‘tradition’ (whatever that politically loaded term might mean in the jazz sphere).

That Braxton acknowledges debts is partially evidenced by the myriad dedications of his compositions. Composition No. 8, for instance, includes dedicatees ranging from John Cage (Composition No. 8(e)) to Cecil Taylor (Composition No. 8(f)), and from Bobby Fisher (Composition No. 8(i)) to Buckminster Fuller (Composition No. 8(j)). But homage is more explicit in a number of album-length explorations of various composers’ work dotted throughout his discography: take, for instance, the music of Andrew Hill in Nine Compositions (Hill) 2000, or of Thelonious Monk in Six Monk’s Compositions (1987).

Braxton has in fact already ‘covered’ Lennie Tristano at album length: on the wonderful Eight (+1) Tristano Compositions 1989 for Warne Marsh (artwork below), and the somewhat ill-starred Quintet (Tristano) 1997, the tale of which is recounted in the liner notes to this new set. His admiration for Tristano (as well as the likes of Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz) is well documented, and in the contemporary climate, in which the music of this ‘school’ is so widely lionised (including second-hand through a generation of players strongly indebted to the likes of Mark Turner), it is interesting to recall the younger Braxton, on routinely expressing his admiration for this music, being widely met with both consternation and considerable disapprobation. It was clearly the case for some that the white Tristano’s ‘avant-garde’ – caricatured (even if these ideas were relevant in some measure) as rational, cool and detached – was a different thing than the avant-garde with which an African-American ‘should’ (who knew that there were norms to creativity?) be concerning himself. This was only one offensive stereotype among many to which Braxton and others were subjected, and which he addressed – among countless other subjects – in his three volume philosophical treatise, the Tri-Axium Writings. (Braxton the iconoclast again: since when did musicians write about the music and the world, unless in orthodox autobiographical form?) In fact, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Tristano himself was widely met with consternation and disapprobation for various reasons throughout his career; and various parallels with Braxton’s experience are brilliantly teased out by Kevin Whitehead in his liner notes to this set.

Braxton’s approach to the ‘tribute’ album goes to the heart of thinking about ‘the tradition’. He is a musician for whom the tradition is innovation rather than simply the preservation of museum pieces. We don’t hear Monk critiqued for misunderstanding the stride tradition, despite the fact that his striding on something like Lulu’s Back in Town really isn’t how James P. Johnson would have done it. In fact, he honours the tradition because his striding isn’t how James P. would have done it. As it is, Braxton’s thinking about musical tradition is particularly sophisticated, and cuts through much of the bluster which occurs when the ‘tradition’ discussion periodically surfaces: for him, a healthy musical ecology is one where there is some kind of equilibrium between the ‘restructuralists’ (the handful-in-a-lifetime ‘game-changers’), the ‘stylists’ (those who have a recognisably personal take on an established current of language), and – yes – the ‘traditionalists’ (those who are most interested in the faithful recreation of an existing language).

Traditionalism as such isn’t Braxton’s especial concern, and his albums of other composers’ music bear this out. He captures some kind of an essence of the composer’s contribution (how tiresome to hear someone on a Monk tune, for instance, play a generic ‘rhythm changes’ solo rather than actually playing the implications of Rhythm-a-Ning, or whatever), whilst at the same time explicitly doing so in his own voice.

Which leads to one of the salient points of this particular collection. Whilst carrying Tristano’s name in its title, the set in fact also contains the compositions of various Tristano descendants/acolotyes/partners in crime: from the more fêted (Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh) to the brilliant but far less heralded musicians such as Ronnie Ball, Billy Bauer, Connie Crothers and Sal Mosca. And with the likes of Konitz and Marsh on the table, one might have expected Braxton to play saxophones here; but instead, he helms the quintet from the piano.

Braxton does have history with the piano, besides having written extensively for the instrument (Composition No. 1, no less, is a piano piece): he actually plays it briefly as far back as the duo album with Joseph Jarman, Together Alone, whilst there are also several CDs' worth of his playing from 1994 and 1995, (including Piano Quartet, Yoshi's 1994 - image above). His style at first blush appears to be an interesting one with which to approach Tristano-school music. He very rarely makes use of single-note lines, instead favouring a dense, dark, chordal approach: I’m put in mind of Mal Waldron, as well as the orchestral approach of AACM pianists such as Muhal Richard Abrams. In the way you sense Braxton thinking his way around the instrument, Charles Mingus’ piano playing is also recalled (this can be heard perhaps most explicitly on the album Solo Piano (Standards) 1995, on which it’s interesting to note the presence of compositions by both Mingus and Waldron). If the standard conception of the Konitz, Marsh and Tristano school texturally speaking is as linear and contrapuntal – strands woven into a fabric – Braxton tends to be more interested in carving out and reconfiguring blocks of colour: he’s generally playing at a Rubik’s Cube, rather than a tapestry. But it’s worth noting that this traditional characterisation of Tristano’s music is only partly accurate: whilst the groups as a whole tended texturally towards the linear, as a pianist, he was never afraid of chording. Watch, for instance, this solo recital from Copenhagen, and the famous single lines don’t appear until after the quarter-hour mark; and even then, their presence is only relatively fleeting. The predominant texture is very much homophonic, in a similar way to Braxton’s. Similar too is the density of the chording: both Tristano and Braxton frequently crowd a lot of notes into close quarters in their respective voicings (Dave Brubeck is another kindred spirit in this respect). Listen to Braxton playing on a very familiar set of chord changes (of which there are many among the contrafacts in this set: the likes of Cherokee, Indiana, and What is This Thing Called Love?), and it’s not hard to trace the contours of the harmony, which is clearly outlined, even if it is occasionally buried deep.

Rhythmically, the concepts of Braxton and Tristano diverge, and yet again, share interesting kinships. Tristano’s touch can be almost ruthlessly even, especially at faster tempi (it sounds very different, of course, but this is something which I also love about Hampton Hawes’ approach to the keyboard), and his lines are almost always rhythmically very decisive. They are also famously (dis-)‘placed’ in interesting ways within the bar. Braxton’s rhythmic sensibility is different, although no less treacherous. His sound is often frequently characterised by a playfulness (something which pervades many aspects of his work more generally) – he’ll stalk a chord in a way similar to how Misha Mengelberg might; and similarly to Misha, may or may not pounce (though again, this difference between Braxton and Tristano shouldn’t be overplayed: as the Copenhagen solo illustrates nicely, the artful stutter can also be found in the latter’s vocabulary.)

There are also macro-level parallels between the Tristano and Braxton senses of time. Simultaneity of musical events – a central element of Braxton’s language – is certainly a cousin of the extreme polyrhythmic approach deployed by Tristano in his seminal Turkish Mambo. Tristano also made use of multi-tracking himself (e.g. Descent into the Maelstrom), as Braxton did on a January 2nd 1971 recording of Composition No. 16. And Tristano’s ‘after the event’ manipulation of the sound source – such as in the speeding up of the basic tracks of Line Up, or in his collaged Requiem – has parallels in the Supercollider algorithms Braxton has derived for the processing of live audio in his Diamond Curtain Wall Music. [Here is an excellent in-depth account of Tristano and studio manipulation.]

In their most free-flowing incarnations, Tristano groups often achieved a rhythmic flexibility and daring such that the soloists in particular seemed to ‘take off’ and float freely, in some way parallel to the tune. Something similar could be said for the melodic language, which (in part due to the placement of phrases in unpredictable places within the bar) often seemed gently to decouple itself from the underlying harmony. The music was shot through with beguiling moments spent in the inside-outside frontier towns (since I’m sitting writing this on an aeroplane: like that moment during take-off when you’re not quite sure whether or not the wheels are still in contact with the runway.)

The quintet on this set often amplifies this approach, undertaking even more prolonged expeditions to the outside, making the still-almost-imperceptible returns to harmony/explicit time/explicit structure particularly thrilling. But for such a venture to be a success, the players need not only to be conceptually, but also technically, equipped: and Jackson Moore, Eivind Opsvik, Mike Szekely and André Vida all have disarming facility at negotiating the inside/outside traditions/transitions: both linguistic (such as gradually leaving the pulse or harmonic anchors behind) and formal (such as moving between ‘jazz’ norms of turn-taking and soloing/comping and the often different norms of collective abstraction).

The unit also feels free not to have to pull the same way at the same time. There are many wonderful passages where the bass and drums may be dealing with abstract, ‘pulse’ playing, whilst the horns are swinging their way through some knotty head or other (take, for example, the opening of 317 East 32nd Street), or where a horn player has slyly dodged the piste markers whilst the rhythm section still holds down the matrix of the song. This is true togetherness within an ensemble: where the empathy is such that the members don’t feel the need to be doing the same thing at the same time, in the knowledge that there is still a common endeavour to ensure coherence.

Where do all the different approaches come from? Traditionally we have improvised melody within the harmonic and rhythmic parameters of a composition; but there are plenty of other parameters to play with. How about playing I Won’t Dance, just using the rhythmic information of the melody line? How about disregarding the rhythmic information of Stella By Starlight, butting all the notes up against one another, and treating them as a tone row? How about ignoring technical musical parameters, but instead playing off something suggestive in either the title or the lyrics to a tune? How about not jettisoning anything, but instead introducing something – maybe locking-in some Language Music (say, trills), and then playing Marionette (a bit like playing Scrabble, but with only adjectives allowed)? Not that these need necessarily be conscious decisions: but part of the business of practice is to facilitate spontaneous, improvised manifestations of such behaviours come the time for performance.

Lennie Tristano and a small group in 1947
Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb/ Public Domain

Back to that caricature of the Tristano school as unduly rational. It’s understandable in a sense: we occasionally hear stories of Tristano practice regimes, such as learning to play a particular phrase beginning variously on each quaver within the bar. But it’s important not to underplay a very dream-like quality to some of the music. Think of the airiness of Konitz’s tone; think of the feeling of textural spaciousness when tenor and alto play those heads at the octave; think of the giddy yet nevertheless completely relaxed rhythmic contortions of those melodies; think of the way those heads realise the sound of surprise, whilst almost always tracking among the most standard of standard sets of chord changes; think of how the time seems warped by tunes taken really quite up-tempo nevertheless feeling lazy, and at slower tempi, of the improbable numbers of notes crammed into beats or across groups of beats.

The reed players here, Moore and Vida, are absolutely their own men, but especially when on alto and tenor respectively, definitely recall Konitz (lighter, airier) and Marsh (light, but with an occasional thicker, throatier undercurrent); a sense heightened by their rapport, which is now far more developed than on the 1997 session. Their playing also displays the influence of Konitz and Marsh on Braxton the saxophonist (especially tonally, and in the melodic contours) as well as of Braxton’s distinctive take on the language (in particular, through his very personal way with saxophone articulation). But as multi-instrumentalists, they also have the wherewithal to take us deeper into the surreal and dreamlike than we go on the original recordings: consider the wonderful way our perceptions are distorted when we hear what our brain has logged from the original soundworld as something which would probably be played on alto and tenor instead as a line shared by an alto and a bass saxophone (as on the trio take of Ice Cream Konitz, the final track in the set) or by baritone and contrabass saxophone (as on the marvellously brawling trio rendition of Lennie Bird, where the bass is effectively walking in the tessitura between the two horns; listen out also for the none-too-obvious final minute of the performance, which ends up with duetting soprano and sopranino saxophones).

If this is as though things have been pitch-shifted, we are also gently disorientated by time-shifting: the quintet will often play the material at subtly different speeds than the familiar older recordings. Again, it’s very true that those recordings themselves were perfectly capable of doing ‘woozy’ (take something like No Figs), but listen to the weirder-because-it’s-so-subtle effect here of playing a tune such as Wow that little bit slower than we’re used to hearing it.

One final reflection: we refer a lot to the Tristano ‘school’; and although there’s no need to define it, we (think we) know it when we hear it. Although recently retired, Braxton was a long-time teacher too, at the likes of Mills College, and most recently, Wesleyan. How can we identify ‘school of Braxton’? I don’t think we necessarily know it when we hear it – consider the very different music made as bandleaders by former students of his such as Mary Halvorson and Tyshawn Sorey (none of this is even to mention the countless musicians whom he has mentored ‘on the stand’, outside the academy). But this points to another crucial aspect of Braxton’s contribution to creativity, and one also borne out in the nature of this particular box set: the message is to take all the lessons you can, but ultimately, to do it your own way.

LINKS: Review-essay 1st of 3, on Anthony Braxton's 3 Compositions (EEMHM ) 2011
Review-Essay 3rd of 3, on Trillium J: The Non-Unconfessionables (Composition No. 380)

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