Anthony Braxton's Ghost Trance Festival took Yoshi's the last week of August and introduced West Coast fans to what the master called "the next level of my work." As always, Mr. Braxton's pace and breadth of vision is breathtaking. In the Seventies and Eighties he moved beyond playing simple song forms, stringing composed sections together with improvisations in concerts that began on one planet and ended up forty-odd minutes later a few galaxies over. Then he began writing "pulse tracks" that could be combined with other compositions in any number of ways, and his music took on an added depth from the possibility that every one of the players could introduce composed material anytime, anywhere, in any combination with improvised sections. Reed and piano could improvise over a composition being played by bass and drums, or vice versa-or two or more composed pieces could be juxtaposed. This demanding music posed exciting challenges for musicians and listeners alike, and opened up a world of possibilities that can be fruitfully explored for who knows how long – that is, if they aren't considered to have been exhausted by Braxton's monumental Quartet, consisting of Marilyn Crispell (piano), Mark Dresser (bass) and Gerry Hemingway (drums). Certainly Braxton doesn't think they're exhausted; on the contrary, he characterized the music of the Ghost Trance nonet that he brought into Yoshi's as "much larger than the quartet musics," although the quartets "made this possible." The Ghost Trance music, he told me, is simply "beyond quartet music – more galactic." He said that the Ghost Trance musicians had "400-plus music systems to choose from," as they utilized the premieres of Braxton's Compositions 207 through 218 as basic frameworks. The term "Ghost Trance" refers to, as one might expect, more than one thing. Tributes to the old masters are one goal, making this phase of Braxton's work not only a development of his quartet music, but of his series of nods to influences including Thelonious Monk, Wayne Marsh, and Charlie Parker. At the same time, the "multiple logics" of the Ghost Trance concept involve the development of composed and improvised themes over figures that repeat with relatively minor variation, after the manner of ritual and spiritual music worldwide. The result was music so rich and complex as to be virtually impossible to capture in the space of a few words. The new Compositions presented a variety of canvases upon which to work: 209 was intense, spiky, relentless; 215 more contemplative...but as each one comprised a set by itself, and each of the nine musicians was brimming full of ideas, the multiplicity of textures and moods must await release of the 12-CD box for categorization. The number of wind instruments onstage would have staffed a good-sized, if somewhat eccentric, marching band, as each of the five reedmen (plus a guitarist) Braxton brought with him have clearly been attending his multi-instrumentalism seminars at Wesleyan. The Ghost Trance Festival at Yoshi's was comprised of Braxton, Andre Vida, Jackson Moore, Brandon Evans, J. D. Parran, Kevin O'Niel, and John Faye, with the impeccable Joe Fonda on bass and the ever-ready Kevin Norton on percussion, including some striking post-post-Hutcherson work on vibes. Fonda's bow work was especially fine, adding extra passion and precision to the proceedings. The reeds were fine, with the bass clarinets (attended by several hands) a bit Dolphy-an, the altos a bit Braxtonian, although the man himself outshone them all. During 209 a couple of the young ones were holding their clarinets center stage while Brax wailed on his over on stage right: all they could do was look at one another ruefully and shake their heads, for although the Professor was gracious and generous as usual in sharing the space and inviting his men to spread out, when he played he was galactic enough all by himself.
The band also seemed to need a bit more rehearsal time navigating Braxton's scores, for many times throughout their stay at Yoshi's they gave and accepted help from their mates in keeping up — or maybe they were just pointing out another of the 400+ music systems to jump into together? The music was, due to the density of the band and the sheer comprehensiveness of Braxton's vision, a bit in the Ascension mold: so many things happening at once. In and among them, a great deal to hold onto and savor. Get in line for the box set.