There had been just a slow trickle of recordings from Anthony Braxton
, but all at once he made up for lost time with two major releases. One is a 13 CD box set of performances of standards. The other is a collection of recordings of original compositions that form part of his latest musical concept, ZIM Music, twelve works that run for a total of more than 11 hours and are released on a single Blu-Ray disc.
ZIM Music is based on a principle Braxton calls "gradient logic" that essentially boils down to music which constantly changes its mind. In the accompanying booklet to the Blu-Ray, Braxton himself describes ZIM Music as "a glider airplane that circles in a downward and/or upward spiral." This music constantly changes in tempo, volume and demeanor but at a gradual pace, allowing it to gracefully alter its shape and focus as different instruments either join in or fall out of the mix and come to the front or recede into the background.
The performances of these twelve compositions come from live concerts in 2017 and 2018 and are by six, seven and nine piece ensembles. All have a configuration of mostly horns and strings, with the core musicians on every piece being Braxton himself on reeds, Taylor Ho Bynum
on brass instruments, Dan Peck
on tuba, and Jacquline Kerrod
on harp. They are joined by a select group of additional players which vary from unit to unit, mainly Shelley Burgon
, Miriam Overlach
or Brandee Younger
as second harpist, Adam Matlock
on accordion and aerophone, and either Tomeka Reid
on cello or Jean Cook
on violin. For the nonet pieces, two extra horn players are further added, Ingrid Laubrock
on saxophone and Stephanie Richards
This music is initially overwhelming but, as one listens to the different pieces, the sense of it all begins to appear. Each composition is a long mesmerizing journey. The musicians play lines, both notated and improvise, that are, for the most part, very musical. The thing is they do not play them together at the same time. There are some massed ensemble sweeps but mostly the instruments play interlocking melodies which sometimes clash and grind against each other. Solo passages generally last long enough to make an impression on the ear but then the music slowly morphs into another shape, like a turning kaleidoscope. Braxton himself is often the most striking lead voice, playing beautifully lilting alto and soprano sax solos which shine through the overall maelstrom, There are also duet sections where Braxton and Bynum, Peck and Matlock, the two harpists, and other combinations, engage in eloquent conversation. On its own Matlock's accordion weaves through the mix, often bringing musical cohesion to the various pops, grunts and trills of the other players while the plucking of the two harps brings a glow of celestial freedom to the overall sound. Tomeka Reid's cello adds grit and depth, and, when Jean Cook takes her chair on Compositions 418 through 420 on violin, she brings a lighter texture and emotion into the music. The sextet and septet settings that comprise eight of the twelve pieces feel relatively clear and orderly compared to the four nonet pieces, Compositions 413 through 416. On those the addition of Laubrock and Richards creates a denser sound where the horns are often dominant. This especially happens when Laubrock and Richards go off on their own tangents, completely separate from what Braxton and Bynum are doing.
Anthony Braxton has produced a lot of amazing music in his distinguished career, but this is some of his most intricate and dazzling. The constant activity of this music is enthralling but It is impossible to take it all in with a couple of listens. It is best to just absorb it at first without trying to analyze too much. The details reveal themselves more with every hearing.
Composition No. 402; Composition No. 408; Composition No. 409; Composition No. 410;
Composition No. 412; Composition No. 413; Composition No. 414; Composition No. 415;
Composition No. 416; Composition 418; Composition No. 419; Composition No. 420.