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London Jazz Festival: Anthony Braxton Quintet + Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon & Tony Oxley

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Anthony Braxton Quintet + Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon & Tony Oxley
Royal Festival Hall
London, UK
November 15th, 2004

Every now and then there comes a show, like this heavyweight double-bill, that seems laden with a sense of its own importance, like history in the making. How frustrating, then, when it only partially meets those expectations.

Anthony Braxton's set has the exhilarating feel of being at once both rigorously scored and wonderfully free. It's easy to appreciate the mindset that saw him make his living as a chess hustler years ago, with the satisfyingly mathematical yet organic nature of the ideas being explored.

His new quintet is a revelation. Satoshi Takeishi's drum kit is a cross between a Kodo rig and a percussion workshop, and his playing is fierce and uncompromising, working closely with Chris Dahlgren on upright bass, who has a nice way with the cryptic hand signal and the dense energy burst. At the same time, Taylor Ho Bynum's trumpet is sharp and penetrating and beautifully augmented by Mary Halvorson on guitar, the two of them working as a team with telepathic interplay. Within Braxton's fixed structures, these bass/drum and trumpet/guitar teams are constantly duelling, improvising the nature of each blow in a largely choreographed melee.

Refereeing the bout, cardiganed and greying, Braxton's alto work is undiminished. He's guttural and vicious when he needs to be, sweet and meandering when he can be, all the while displaying an unerring knack for finding the groove among the angular themes that crowd around him. This is avant-garde music with soul, a breathtaking and enthralling journey.

The Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley set sees the seriousness ratcheted up another notch, and turns out to be an object lesson in confounding an audience.

British percussionist, Oxley, kicks things off with a solo set, moving from rolling, swelling, drums, to chains dragged languorously over skins - a showcase of Improv drumming techniques that are common currency today but which he helped define in the '60s.

Radical activist and trumpeter, Bill Dixon's set is perplexing: low grumbles, noteless whooshes and sighs, the occasional yelp, all cushioned in echoey reverb. The same series of tricks is repeated with a different horn sounding the same as the first. An air of bewilderment takes hold.

Then it's time for Cecil Taylor to take the stage. There's a long pause, some heckling. It's with a slightly discomfited air that the septuagenarian Taylor finally shuffles on stage, shoeless, skull-capped, tie-died, eccentric. Notwithstanding his distracted appearance, he attacks the keyboard with a reliably fierce, energetic and questing bravado. It's one huge slab of sound, hands rolling and flipping onto their backs, running up and down the keys, jabbing and slamming: forty-odd years of intensely idiosyncratic piano explorations distilled into one savage statement.

Oxley and Dixon rejoin for the much-promised and long-overdue trio. While Oxley's agile contributions make a fitting backdrop to Taylor's excursions, Dixon seems lost, doggedly sticking to his plangent exclamations, regardless of the storm raging around him. When the piece finally comes crashing to a close, the house is left utterly exhausted. History can be a tiring business.


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