This monumental four-CD box set photographs the one-time meeting of an avant all-star and super-like-minded foursome: The infamously abstruse saxophonist and conceptualist Anthony Braxton partnered with Nels Cline (guitar), Greg Saunier (drums) and Taylor Ho Bynum (brass). It is music that, because of the heavily theoretical predilections of its “bandleader,” might suggest a sound that reeks of a dry formality. It doesn’t. It does present a number of issues and questions.
On the surface, Braxton’s compositional schematics (thought of as “difficult”) play some part in the general effect of this music, so is lumping it in with what we’ve called “free music” technically correct? Normally I’d make an argument for that, but for our purposes here I believe there’s enough of that superficially “free” sound to go ahead and call it free music, of a kind. Also, how much freedom for the musician is there in “free music”? What sort of limitations does it place on the player? Is an extended melodic line a no-no? Is a pattern resembling a swing or groove a mortal sin? In free music, these will always be (some of) the questions.
I wanted to describe this music in a different way, though, one that doesn’t bog us all down in musical- theoretical bull puckey. I will say first that your invitation into this music comes right off from the good humor of the titles of each album-length piece, which are dedicated to American musical giants: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Merle Haggard. While his pieces can hardly be called any sort of tribute or make obvious reference to these icons, stylistically or otherwise, if you dig deep you can imagine Braxton and Co.’s affinity with these artists’ musical wanderlust, maybe some sort of timbral relativity in the attitudes toward dynamics, tone and audaciousness.
Braxton is well known for his resonant synthesis of the European art music and African American creative music traditions; he likes, to broad-brush it, to draw from somewhat disparate sources, such as Hildegard von Bingen, Jelly Roll Morton, Alban Berg, Dave Brubeck, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Sun Ra; Captain Beefheart, Johnny Mathis and Bob Dylan all figure in his enthusiasms as well, and his choice of collaborators in this project is telling, as they’re similar omnivores: Nels Cline is best known as axe wielder for country-rock mainstreamers Wilco but comes primarily from a background of avant-jazz improvisational creations; Greg Saunier’s day job is leading the excellently weird “rock” band Deerhoof, while Ho Bynum has vast experience across a broad spectrum of new-jazz/non-genre spheres.
Excerpt of “Improvisation Four (For guitarist/composer Merle Haggard)”
The music contained in this box-set is the result of, roughly, a gambit of pitting the shared “jazz” experience of Braxton and Ho Bynum against the perhaps more “rock”-savvy inclinations of Cline and Saunier. These are “free” improvisations that from the git-go determinedly avoid reference to their titular inspirations or in fact any other kind of music. In its almost brutal obliqueness — the listener is floating in a kind of white space — it is a remarkably freeing, liberating experience; exhilarating, even.
Over the four albums, there is a consistency of musical approach and resulting effect. What might you hear? Saunier’s drums thump and tumble amid flurries of Ho Bynum’s trumpet, counterpointed with Braxton’s sax and co-counterpointed with Cline’s guitar/electronics on the smallish side, not overpowering or dominating, as it could not be allowed to be. It’s pointillistic in places, the sounds roam and clash and establish brief harmonic affinities. Weavings/splatters, a flurry of frenzy, then an abrupt stop, a thinning out of aural space; Braxton’s sax now like a giant bullfrog; mute trumpet and more counterpointed guitar in little strokes, sharp. Saunier’s drums now and not anywhere in the entire set laying out any sort of “groove,” of course. Ho-Bynum’s trumpet animal-like cries, whispers and squeals. Is it absolutely abstract? Close enough.
How does one use music like this? Or, better, how does one get inside it? If you want to listen deeply, how can this be done? You make the effort. You need to feel maximum receptiveness, otherwise forget it; take off your shoes. And I find that maximizing the power of free music such as Braxton’s comes with knowing not much about where it comes from; the less context the better. You want to float in this space, ideally with nothing to grab onto, like Little Lulu did in that episode where her entire world became a vast blank space and it was just her and a bunch of nothingness — and that changed everything.
Here we have four instrumental sources scattering shards in the air. They are splitting everything they sense into broken entities. The close listener then steps between the cracks, fissures, and once inside…What it’s about: It’s about how sounds/notes/textures play off each other, smash together, co-exist a bit, split atomically to produce a billion other sounds/traces of a feeling or thought.
Is it visual? Should it be? You might say this music has an analog in visuality. Primarily, there is density (there is a lot to listen to, a lot of movement to track as violently noisy guitars meld into harmless tinkles, drums scrape and poke, brass meanders like picking flowers) and lack of density. Meanwhile, these amazingly in-tune musicians stop/start on a dime, give you a nickel change.
This music is intentionally ambivalent, or emotionally ambiguous. There are no attempts at setting what you might call a mood or atmosphere, or any sort of visual or story per se; it’s abrasive sometimes, but not angry; the listener can’t project upon it anything more than the creators’ sincere desire to make a new sound.
So, an understatement: This is uncompromising music, the proud antithesis of accessibility or commercialism. Thus the legend Anthony Braxton continues to state his case, which is in essence that there are a lot of things his music is not.
John Payne is Music Critic at Riot Material. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).