Anthony Braxton: Tentet (Wesleyan) 1999
Even though his output suggests that saxophonist/composer/educator Anthony Braxton has never wanted for outlets for his music, he hasn't always had the control he desired. All that changed with the launch in 2011 of the New Braxton House imprint, which issues a new digital download each month drawn from his voluminous archives. This initiative has allowed the gaps in his back catalogue to be filled, and edges ever closer to the goal of documenting all the master's works. On the double CD Tentet (Wesleyan) 1999, each disc showcases a single continuous piece.
Aficionados will know that between 1995 and 2006 virtually all Braxton's writing was channeled into what he terms Ghost Trance Music (GTM). Inspired by the native American Ghost Dance rituals, Braxton defined GTM in a May 1996 interview for JazzTimes, as "a process that is both composition and improvisation, a form of meditation that establishes ritual and symbolic connections which go beyond time parameters and become a state of being in the same way as the trance musics of ancient West Africa and Persia." That he achieves by constructing a melody comprising a stream of evenly spaced notes, which goes on for 20 pages or more, during which at certain points the participants are able to choose to switch tracks onto other written material or even other completely different charts from his ouevre, or just to express themselves without constraint.
So much for the theory, but what does it sound like? Well the truthful answer is very little else. Braxton's music, excepting his homage to key figures from the tradition and the standard songbook, is now entirely sui generis. The most obvious comparator is the multi disc Ninetet (Yoshi's) 1997 series (Leo Records, 2002). In spite of the leeway given to performers, the music still clearly emanates from a single mind. Structural elements such as riffs, repeated phrases and angular lines marching in unison count as ever present, but usually overlapping, and often juxtaposed with bursts of individual ingenuity which may last for minutes at a stretch. At times thrilling, but at other times perplexing, there are no dull moments.
"Composition 235" begins with an unbroken cascade of non-repeating eighth notes, delivered at varying speeds. Though the complete ensemble starts in unison, within the first few minutes the band breaks into subsets to follow disparate, but still preordained paths. At eight minutes Braxton himself steps up for the first "solo," as usual showcasing his distinctive alto saxophone gallop. Shortly thereafter come a series of staccato blasts by the collective reeds, with a circular-breathed soprano saxophone barrage emerging, joined by a second shrieking reed. Then everything transforms again as the initial melody reappears, buoyed by Kevin O'Neil's slashing electric guitar, while a pastoral flute gambols alongside unconcernedly. All this exposition concerns a section picked almost at random serving to illustrate the constantly mutating musical tapestry.
With such a reed heavy roster, and fast evolving and near indescribable sequence of episodes, those who enjoy relating particular sounds to particular players will be frustrated, though naturally, the bass, Kevin Norton's precise drumming and the guitar are readily distinguishable, and hold an equal place in the instrumental hierarchy. Ultimately pleasure can be gained as much by letting the tide of events wash over, as by diving into the well-nigh overwhelming detail. Either way the paradox of simultaneous autonomy and organization informs a remarkable listening experience.
Track Listing: Composition 235; Composition 236.
Personnel: Anthony Braxton: reeds; James Fei: reeds; Brian Glick: reeds; Chris Jonas: reeds; Steve Lehman: reeds; Seth Misterka: reeds; Jackson Moore: reeds; Kevin O'Neil: electric guitar; Seth Dillinger: contrabass; Kevin Norton: percussion.