I could say this about virtually any other Anthony Braxton disc, but I'll say it about this one anyway: 14 Compositions (Traditional) 1996 is an example of both continuity and departure in his music. He has recorded several "standards" albums before, but those took up the song library that jazzmen drew from in the Fifties and Sixties. Some of the songs dated back to the Thirties and Forties, but all were current decades later as vehicles for improvisation. This disc, with a few exceptions, goes even farther back. Braxton and Stewart Gillmor record jazz and blues tunes that were famous in the Twenties, or (as in the case of "Some Day You'll Be Sorry") were composed by musicians from the "Dixieland" era. So this disc, which is uniformly delightful, has continuity with Braxton's earlier "standards" explorations, as he goes (for the first time) even deeper into the tradition.
Even more beguiling is the continuity he slyly establishes between his own ultra-modern "avant-garde" approach and the homely little tunes he's playing here. From the beginning of Earl Hines' "Rosetta," the opening tune (on which he takes up his soprano saxophone for the first time in a number of years), his style, especially in improvisations, is no different here from his style when playing his own compositions. Over Gillmor's old-timey piano, Braxton's soprano is mercurial and furious, shooting toward the sky while never breaking the gentle feel of the tune.
Brax switches to alto for Clarence Williams' "Kansas City Man Blues," while Gillmor again contributes a striding ragtime piano flavor. After stating the head in a relatively straightforward manner, Braxton's solo is harmonically daring and full of the multiphonic cries advanced by the Sixties New Thing players. Yet again, he not only never breaks the mood, but enhances it wonderfully. "Do You Know It Means to Miss New Orleans" has Braxton on contrabass clarinet and Gillmor on valve trombone; while the tune is recognizable, this one sounds more like a Braxton composition! Same for "Blue, Turning Grey Over You," which has Braxton on flute and Gillmor on double-belled euphonium! But when Gillmor goes back to piano (and Braxton to clarinet) for "Skylark," the more conventional feel returns.
The duo essays the Wesleyan University (where Braxton heads the music department) fight song on contrabass clarinet (Braxton) and sousaphone (Gillmor). Then Braxton plays tenor (another rarity in his arsenal) and alto to Gillmor's valve trombone on "Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of This Jelly Roll." Here Braxton unleashes an undiluted blast of the modern age. Fats Waller's "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" is played in a harmonically piquant way that may suggest what Braxton sees in Waller as a restructuralist. So is Louis Armstrong's "Some Day You'll Be Sorry." But the old times are here again on his restrained and beautiful rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood," and again later on "The Memphis Blues." "Star Dust" is somewhat arch, but this highlights this beautiful melody without the drippy sentimentality with which it is usually played. "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me" is well introduced by Gillmor's pure-toned cornet. "Ja Da" is a playful end to a! playful and entrancing tour.
An unusual and fascinating record. Also one that's a lot of fun.