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:

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