REVIEW: Anthony Braxton ZIM MUSIC Septet at Cafe Oto

Anthony Braxton at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved


Anthony Braxton ZIM MUSIC Septet 
(Cafe Oto, 29 May 2018. And in conversation with Alexander Hawkins, 30 May. Final events of 3-day residency. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Where do you start with Anthony Braxton? With a brief visit to early days and then an immediate jump to the present! For Alto is the seminal double LP recorded in '69, with Braxton soloing throughout on alto sax, no overdubs, which shook up the world of improvisation. Described by Derek Taylor (LINK ) as "the first extended document of solo saxophone improvisation in the history of recorded music", this album opened the gates for the likes of Evan Parker (whom Braxton referred to as "my brother", along with Lol Coxhill, in his conversation with Alexander Hawkins), Joe McPhee and Peter Brötzmann. The album sounds as fresh today as ever.

Braxton recognises few territorial distinctions, confounding narrow-minded purists, and in discussion with Hawkins cited both composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and clarinettist Tony Scott as heroes, for their open-mindedness and invention. He's composed for 100 tubas (LINK) and for multiple orchestras (LINK), and has developed complex notational systems to accommodate the vast range of his ideas. He has over 100 albums to his credit.

Heading up his youthful ZIM MUSIC Septet, Braxton kicked off their intense, 75-minute set with a mighty flurry on alto, a parallel revisit to For Alto's landmark premise, demonstrating that, at 72 years, he retains his fluency, technical command and unquenchable appetite for musical adventure. And this was not straight jazz instrumentation – no drums, no bass, no piano. Instead, with Braxton to left of stage on saxes, the septet comprised brass from Taylor Ho Bynum (cornets and trombone) directly opposite him, to right of stage, the two harps of Jacqueline Kerrod and Miriam Overlach, one either side of the performance area, with Adam Matlock on accordion (and occasional recorder), violinist Jean Cook and Dan Perks on tuba, centre stage.

Braxton sparked off all manner of initiatives within the septet, in alignment with his ZIM MUSIC guidelines linked to the eleventh of his 12 Language Music System modules, with its focus on gradients of dynamics, density and volume, peaking and subsiding in unpredictable sequence, with each of the musicians given the authority to play their part in shaping the flow. Braxton covered the Language System with Hawkins and can be seen describing it here (LINK).

Sprightly, alert, at ease in Cafe Oto's intimate setting, he guided the ensemble with bright, darting looks, pre-arranged hand signals, nods and smiles – a benign overview. Part of the game was to work with a variety of Braxton's scores from different compositional eras. They'd be shifted around on music stands – scores with conventional notation overlapped with graphic scores utilising colourful and monochrome drawn shapes mixed with notations on staves, and with exclusively visual scores, large dark brown sheets of paper with curvy, white squiggles drawn with deliberation. The combination of the visual and the sonic links back to Braxton's chromaesthesia, where sounds are heard as colours and shapes, a subject discussed at length by Graham Lock (LINK), noting also Braxton's close affinity with the artist Wassily Kandinsky.

There was no let-up in intensity throughout the set. Peaks and troughs there may have been, but this was part of the navigation of the specific language directive. For this music to succeed – it is an unequivocally live experience – the right musicians have to be on board, at the top of their game with interpretative, interactive and technical skills. It's not a challenge for the faint-hearted or the under-powered! There were moments of drifting and dreaming – in his talk he described Ho Bynum "walking through a cloud space"; and episodes where all players went for it in ultra-dense, full free-form mode.

There were short interjections of whistling and vocalising, and Orlach did a John Edwards on her harp, tapping and battering its body, scraping and scratching the strings, drawing a sponge up and down the cords to summon squeaks and stutters, a foil to Kerrod who kept the lid on it with elegant, purposeful constraint. Percussion made a brief visitation as instruments were downed, water bottles gently kicked, and other accoutrements and instruments knocked.

Foregrounding at key moments, Braxton dived in to his jazz saxophone roots with elegant, deeply ingrained virtuosity and would then catch the eyes of his second-in-command, Ho Bynum, who stretched, squeezed and extruded expression from his cornet, recalling Wadada Leo Smith's excursions at Cafe Oto, where the combination of chamber and jazz ensembles similarly turned conventional expectation on its head (LINK).

How to encapsulate the whole experience? Imagine a series of paper bags, full and twisted to closure. Only when they burst do they reveal their contents – whether it is water, soot, mud, colourful liquid, vegetation, a balloon ready to pop, anything – and that's how it was – many episodes, all linked, but devised in the moment to create a rich sequence of sonic texture. A triumph of the visceral and the abstract, all from one palette.

"A rich sequence of sonic texture. A triumph of the visceral and the abstract."
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved

What's more, Braxton stated, in his wide-ranging talk the following day, that "part of my need is not to feel happy [once a project is completed], but to move on. I want to keep learning … I am a professional student of music", expressing a similar sentiment to that of his AACM cohorts, Roscoe Mitchell, and Don Moye, in their conversation at the same venue last year (LINK). Lessons for us all!

ZIM MUSIC Septet, evening of 29 May at Cafe Oto

Anthony Braxton / saxophones, compositions
Taylor Ho Bynum / cornet, brass
Jean Cook / violin
Jacqueline Kerrod / harp
Adam Matlock / accordion
Miriam Overlach / harp
Dan Peck / tuba

In conversation with Alexander Hawkins, afternoon of 30 May at Cafe Oto

LINKS: Alexander Hawkins has written four substantial pieces on Anthony Braxton for LondonJazz News:

1) REVIEW/ESSAY 1 from 2016 -Trillium J: The Non-Unconfessionables (Composition No. 380)
2) REVIEW/ESSAY 2 - Quintet (Tristano) 2014
3) REVIEW/ESSAY 3 - 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011
4) REVIEW from 2011: with Jon McDonough 6 Duos (Wesleyan) 2006

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