Saturday, January 27, 2007


Anthony Braxton was one of the many reasons I decided to return to college in the late 90s after being more or less out of the academic groove for six years or so and transfer to Wesleyan University and majored in music. When I learned that Braxton taught in the music department, I figured something special must be happening there. Over the years I heard that Ed Blackwell, the legendary drummer for Ornette Coleman, taught there as well (though he had recently died). Then I read that John Cage had taught there decades ago, and I learned about the ethnomusicology department, about the gamelan and the South Indian and West African master musicians. I was also drawn to the place because of their fine university press, which published the work of the amazing poet Heather McHugh. All this together got me pretty excited about the place.

I sort of kick myself for not ever playing in any of Braxton’s student ensembles while I was there, but I only had two years and I got wrapped up in other things – Malian music, Brazilian samba and South Indian solkattu and mrdangam drumming. There were only so many mind-boggling systems to barely grasp at a time. Anyway, I did take a class on the history of the saxophone with Braxton and I also took an opera class that he co-taught (Braxton has composed his own opera, and you’ll be happy to learn that he’s a big Wagner fan and buff.) And I was friends with a few people who played in Braxton’s ensembles, one of my neighbors toured and recorded with the group, so I sort of got a little tutorial in some his compositional/performance approaches. He has these legendarily enormous books of compositions, some of which are named by numbers, some with strange science-diagram-like drawings, and he also has this numbered system of stylistic instructions that correspond with certain dramatic ways of approaching and shaping notes – drastic dynamic attacks, pointalistic phrasing, extreme staccato. If you’ve ever seen a Braxton group performance, he can conduct using unorthodox hand signals, cuing the entire group to switch "styles," and sometimes signaling parts of the group to change compositions. It’s wonderfully chaotic but with pockets of highly ordered playing. I once saw him conducting his large ensemble when he did this kind of move like a football referee holding his arms up to signal a touchdown, only Braxton had his elbows bent, and slowly he turned his to arms one side so they were diagonal to where they had been and approaching being parallel with the floor. As he did, the entire group changed – it was as if everyone bent their note or slowed down or something, but it seemed as if Braxton, in mad scientist/high priest/conjurer mode, had affected some sort of space-time shift in the performance.

At other times Braxton’s performances can have the air of that Will Farrell skit on SNL in which the fashion designer breaks out the cell phones of different sizes. Braxton will trot out the tiniest little horns that make dog whistle sounds and then he’ll roll out these enormous contra-bass, ultra-low sax clarinette tuba contraptions. It’s the wonderful mix of supercilious high art attitude and the element of potty humor submerged in the preference for barking flatulent sounds that makes the scene so rich.

I got an e-mail from Lefty requesting a post with a few choice Braxton tracks. I’ve got some of his later Ghost Trance stuff on disc, and on vinyl I’ve got some the great mid-70s stuff on Arista which earned him a few awards and also the reputation for being the next Ornette Coleman or the next Charlie Parker, whichever you prefer. There’s one tune that is especially brilliant - it’s sort of a jumble of John Philip Sousa and Sun Ra and Stockhausen: outer space marching band music for the end of time. I’ll have to dig that one out of the stacks and convert to MP3. In the meantime, here are two choice jams. Each, actually rare and out-of-print on disc, as well. The first is from a live concert in ‘75 at Montreux with Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on drums. It’s called "Kelvin G," which I always figured would be the named I’d adopt as my quantum physics/mystic/ambient-hip-hop persona.
The second is "Composition No. 40G" from the record Six Compositions: Quartet, which has Ed Blackwell on drums. And which, I learned from looking at Amazon, is now going for $100.

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