Are you still mad at yourself because you didn't pick up those Arista LPs in the cutout bins? Would you kick your own butt because you missed the concert when Anthony Braxton's quartet with Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway came in a venue near you? Don't despair, there is hope still. In the current time-cycle, rather 'complex' as Professor Braxton would say, he managed to establish an unit which is just as good as his legendary quartets, but it's happening here and now. In two dates in Italy of the recent European tour, I witnessed the different faces of the group, and I finally was exhilarated by their Roman concert at the new, beautiful Auditorium.
A word of caution. I have been bit by the Braxton bug in the 70's, and since then I consider him of the most exciting, funny, creative and consistently provocative musicians of the planet. If you find him cerebral, too European and 'white', not "jazz" and 'black' enough, maybe we do not share the same idea of what "jazz" is, and anyway I can only suggest to listen to the music, blindfolded if necessary to help you forget the skin pigmentation issue.
The group was billed as Anthony Braxton 'Standards' Quartet: it is of course not the first time that the Chicago composer and multireedist goes back to his jazz upbringing. After the "In The Tradition" records of the 70's, maybe his best results in this particular endeavour were the Tristano tribute and the monumental Charlie Parker project, both on hatART, but also the little known but charming double CD he recorded on piano ( Solo Piano (Standards) 1995, No More 2). Braxton of course loves the jazz tradition, and knows it deeply, as this is not considered by him (and by many others) an obstacle to appreciation and inspiration from Wagner, gamelan or American songs: on the contrary, and added incentive.
Braxton has never been interested in the electronic manipulation of sound, even if he worked with some major innovators in the genre like Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum and of course George Lewis. In these days when a laptop on stage seems to be mandatory, the quartet strikes its very classical approach: not even guitarist Kevin O'Neill is using pedals or effects. It's the combination of frequencies and timbres to startle sometimes the listener with sudden shifts in colors and space. The day scheduled for the concert in Rome turned out to be the same day of the national mourning and State funerals for the 19 Italians killed in Iraq. The atmosphere was calm but the pain excruciating, more so for those who believe that Italian soldiers should not have been there in the first place. The organisers decided to go ahead with the planned activities, but they read a message before the concerts, and the artists (Sam Rivers was playing opposite Braxton) sent words of condolence and peace. The quartet dedicated a tense improvisation to the Italian victims, the music full of contrasting layers and movements.
Kevin Norton, the percussionist, laid the foundation of the group with his clear, sharp drumming, very musical and completely devoid of the more showy effects which often are present in dummers solos. He paid his jazz dues as well as anybody else, and his recording with Milt Hinton should prevent further discussion on this point. He moved on into contemporary composition, teaching and studying Braxton's music, of which at this point in time he's one of the most sensitive and profound interpreter, in Braxton's own groups or in his duo with pianist Haewon Min (incidentally, his wife). In Rome he played glockenspiel and vibes adding yet another sonic dimension to the group.
Andy Eulau is the extreme coolster: supporting when needed, but able to take his own risks soloing, and all this without apparent effort.
If you think (like I do) that if you hear one more "jazz" guitar solo you'll scream, Kevin O'Neill is the man for you. His original ways of meditating on the proposed themes were distinctly Braxton-influenced, but not imitative, and he manages to extract from the instrument a complete new set of sounds and phrasing.
They played, for the amazement and delight of the audience who asked for an encore (but didn't get it) a short, intese set including "Crazy Rhythm", "Off Minor", Jobim's "Meditation" as well the free improvised piece.
Close to 60, Braxton is excited by the prospect of playing music just as seriously as he was while taping For Alto in 1968 in Chicago. Catch them if they're playing live near you, pester your local Jazz, Classical music festival or Contemporary art museum to invite them, get their records. I hope the Rome concert will be released, but in the meantime Barking Hoop, the label operated by Kevin Norton, published an excellent snapshot of the group: "8 Standards (Wesleyan) 2001" with a completely different selection of themes.
Do it now: don't wait until they attain the "legendary" status and it's too late to hear them together.