Can We Keep Up With Anthony Braxton?

photo by Carolyn Wachnicki
photo by Carolyn Wachnicki

Two years ago, when Anthony Braxton was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, he was was showcased in the awards concert as a composer. He didn’t pick up any of the reed instruments he plays with mastery, or sit down at the piano.
The short scene presented from his opera, “Trillium J,” was atonal, emblematic of his distinctive voice and, in spots, deeply funny. Braxton talked for more than 30 minutes, reflecting on both well-known sources of inspiration, such as Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), with which he had early and formative connection, and less obvious ones, like the University of Michigan marching band. He seemed to relish being called a “master,” but not the word “jazz.”
“My interests were never idiomatic,” he said. “My interests were trans-idiomatic.”
It’s been fasinating to watch lately as the profound influence of the unclassifiable masters connected with the AACM continues to deepen and widen, even as these elder musicians produce original work at an impressive clip. (Witness, for instance, Henry Threadill’s recent work, or Wadada Leo Smith’s.) At 70, Braxton’s projects continue to spill forth, to grow and morph, in ways that trace his inspirations and ideas backward and forward, always expanding the grand and grandly organic systems within which his work exists. Those who have been influenced by these musicians—an expanding sphere with expansive reach, I’d argue—live in trans-idiomatic world that minds like Braxton’s continue to sketch.
In Braxton’s case, it’s not just the sheer volume of work (how can one find time to digest it all?) or the quality (just listen); it’s also the scope and innovation of what Braxton is doing: Are we ready for this yet? Can we handle it?

I’ve just received word that Braxton is set for the release of three major boxed sets of his works on April 1 via the Tri-Centric Foundation and Firehouse 12 Records. It includes the best representation yet of Braxton’s four-part opera, “Trillium J”; a quintet tribute to the legacy of Lennie Tristano, with Braxton at the piano; and Braxton’s “Echo Echo Mirror House Music”—the press release describes the latter as “the latest conceptual innovation in Braxton’s five-decade career…. In this ensemble of longtime collaborators, all the musicians wield iPods in addition to their instruments, while navigating scores that combine cartography and evocative graphic notation, creating a musical tapestry combining live performance and sampled sound from Braxton’s extensive recorded discography.”
Braxton will celebrate the three releases with rare U.S. concert appearances at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN on April 1 & 2.
I can’t make that scene, but I hope to find time and headspace to dig into these three sets. In that interest, more to come. For now:

Some further details from the press release:
“Ranging from a wild reinvention of post-Wagnerian opera—Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables)—to a heartfelt tribute to an improvisatory hero—Quintet (Tristano) 2014—to a multi-dimensional, fully immersive electro-acoustic sound environment—3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011—each of the three projects offers a different component of Braxton’s constantly evolving vision, and each challenges the listener (or “friendly experiencer,” in Braxton terminology) to experience music as an active participant rather than a passive spectator.”
Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables) captures the premiere of Braxton’s latest four-act opera in a high-definition video documenting the multimedia performance at Roulette in Brooklyn on April 19, 2014 and a four-CD studio recording made the following week. Featuring an all-star cast of twelve vocalists, twelve improvising instrumental soloists and a thirty-seven piece orchestra, along with dancers, interactive video design, full costume and lighting, and moments ranging from a hoe-down square dance to a double-dutch jump-roping crew, Trillium J represents the most complete documentation yet of one of Braxton’s major operatic works. It is also the latest installment in Braxton’s ongoing Trillium Opera Complex System, an ambitious creative endeavor of 36 interlinked acts, comparable in scope to Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Stockhausen’s Licht.
On Quintet (Tristano) 2014, Braxton pays tribute to the music and creative community of one of his heroes: the pianist, composer and educator Lennie Tristano (1919–1978). Putting aside his usual saxophones, Braxton takes to the piano, joined by saxophonists Jackson Moore and Andre Vida, bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Mike Szekely. In an exhaustively comprehensive overview that covers not just Tristano’s music but the compositions of his colleagues and students like Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Sal Mosca and Connie Crothers, the quintet radically re-imagines Tristano’s melodies and structures, the same way Tristano and his peers radically re-imagined the melodies and harmonies of the American songbook tradition. As Kevin Whitehead writes in his liner notes, “None of Anthony’s tributes to jazz heroes have been as extensive as this delve into the works of Tristano and his circle…Time and again these recordings have an uncanny way of evoking the Tristano esthetic, then letting it dissolve into free space, sometimes to be reconstituted, sometimes not.”
3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011 features the first studio recordings of Braxton’s Echo Echo Mirror House Music—the latest conceptual innovation in Braxton’s five-decade career. With his Ghost Trance Music, Braxton created a framework for his musicians to freely explore his entire compositional output in each concert; with his Diamond Curtain Wall music, he brought his own interactive electronics into his improvisational palette. Now with Echo Echo Mirror House Music, Anthony Braxton brings these ideas to the next level. In this ensemble of longtime collaborators, all the musicians wield iPods in addition to their instruments, while navigating scores that combine cartography and evocative graphic notation, creating a musical tapestry combining live performance and sampled sound from Braxton’s extensive recorded discography. Impeccably recorded at Firehouse 12’s state-of-the-art studio, the music is available in two formats: a traditional three-CD box set and a 5.1 Surround Sound audiophile Blu-ray disc.

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