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London Jazz Festival: No Compromises

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There never seemed to be less than two compositions being played at once, even when someone was soloing.
November 15, 2004

The Royal Festival Hall played host to a double bill to die for, as part of the London Jazz Festival, featuring innovators who came to prominence at opposite ends of the '60s. Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon were both part of the 1964 October Revolution in Jazz, while Anthony Braxton emerged from Chicago's AACM at the end of the decade. All these musicians (including England's Tony Oxley, who partners Taylor and Dixon) have developed their own styles - to the extent that their music demands to be judged on its own terms - and their playing is instantly identifiable. There have been no compromises, but while Braxton continues to forge ahead, the elder statesmen provided fewer surprises. Both sets were recorded by BBC Radio 3, so you will be able to make up your own minds.

Anthony Braxton Quintet

Anthony Braxton led his youthful quintet onto the stage, wearing black cardigan and trousers, but I needn't have worried, his music has not mellowed with age. The group consisted of Braxton on alto, soprano, sopranino and C melody saxophone, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, trumpet, trombone and conch, Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, Mary Halvorson on electric guitar, and Chris Dahlgren on acoustic bass and electronics.

The quintet shot out of the starting gate with unison sax and trumpet in long convoluted skeins over rhythmic punctuations, read intently from a score. Braxton launched into a saxophone solo, while the trumpet negotiated the tricky opening lines. Though the music has gone beyond Braxton's Ghost Trance Musics of the later 1990s, it is no less complex or challenging, encompassing unison themes, more space and silence than hitherto, and a constant ebbing and flowing as the focus shifts around the group and moves from one piece seamlessly into the next.

From the outset it was clear that this was not going to be your conventional jazz quintet or one of Braxton's standards groups. Takeishi used a very unconventional kit - no trap drums, but several drum heads, one cymbal, one large frame drum and numerous different sized percussion devices. He sat cross-legged on a slightly raised dais, playing patterns on his tuned drums with sticks, mallets and brushes. Whether or not the absence of a conventional drum kit explained the lack of a pulse, there was no rhythmic thread to hang onto - this was almost chamber music, albeit with attention deficit disorder and attitude.

Nonetheless, Braxton was always in control, using his fingers to count out prearranged signals, cueing in the other musicians in duos or trios. There was continual intense reading from scores and sorting between sheets of music, often following signals from Braxton, but sometimes spontaneously. There never seemed to be less than two compositions being played at once, even when someone was soloing. While one musician was cutting loose, another duo was cued in on convoluted unison lines on trumpet and guitar or bass and drums or sax and drums. There were several fiery interludes with Braxton burning on his saxophones over roiling bass and percussion - only to subside as quickly as they arose, and leaving Braxton mopping his sweating brow. A gorgeous ballad emerged from the mix at one stage - skewed and distorted , but a ballad nonetheless - with lyrical bluesy saxophone against fat guitar chords - only to drift slowly out of focus and metamorphose into something else. Braxton was continually swapping between instruments and rarely sustained his solos - often allowing them to peter out into whimpers - quite a lot of his saxophone playing involved distorted vocalised tones or slightly tremulous noodling. Sometimes he would switch saxophones, play just a few notes, then select a different instrument.

Ho Bynum's style makes full use of mutes to vary and vocalise his trumpet sound and he played one particularly ferocious trumpet solo with extensive use of mutes to bend his notes. Bynum also frequently switched between cornet, trumpets and trombone with various mutes. This group was unafraid to embrace noise as part of the music's fabric - from bass electronics to guitar scrabbling or breath noises from the trumpet or growling through the saxophone. Mary Halvorson used a wide range of techniques from chording to single line runs to scraping the fret board. Chris Dahlgren on acoustic bass, bowed and plucked - also using extended techniques - bowing below the bridge, and introducing electronics, fuzzed lines and utilising feedback from his amp.

As the set developed, everyone was enthusiastically responding to the challenges of the dense complex music and cueing up and introducing compositions on their own initiative. At one stage Dahlgren and Takeishi cued up a composition without reference to Braxton and began to play, signalling to each other when to stop, develop or repeat, almost like the pulse tracks so loved by Braxton aficionados of old.


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