In late March, Anthony Braxton came to Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival. There, he performed twice with friends, colleagues, and former students. I was at both of these shows and enjoyed them immensely, this being the first time that I had had a chance to see Braxton live despite being a fan for nearly 25 years. Both of these hour-long performances were recently released on Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation label.
This performance took place at a theater that held about 500 people. Prior to the show, the line was around the block for general admission seating. I managed to obtain a center location near the front of the venue and sat back for a labyrinthine set.
The performers were Braxton on alto, soprano, sopranino saxophones; Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone; Nate Wooley on trumpet; Vincent Chancey on French horn; James Fei on alto, sopranino saxophones, clarinet; Ingrid Laubrock on tenor, soprano saxophones; Mary Halvorson on acoustic guitar; Brandon Seabrook on electric guitar; Tomeka Reid on cello; Carl Testa on bass; Tim Feeney on percussion. With an outfit of this size, Braxton was able to give his musical system a full workout.
My first impression upon hearing this recording is that it could have benefitted from a proper mix. Admittedly, the quality is still good in that it is clear and almost certainly from the soundboard. But, in person, the sound was much more full and dense, whereas the recording leaves some of the instruments under-amplified. Listening at a high volume can rectify most of this issue, however.
With this large group, Braxton was able to present compositions and structured improv for all players, but he also subdivided them into various units of two, three, and four, and sent each of these off simultaneously in their own directions. The result, which is present in many of Braxton’s recent offerings, was somewhere between orchestra music and free-jazz, with the subgroups coming in and out of synch with one another.
Braxton controlled all of this through an extensive system of hand signals and sheet music. Each subgroup also communicated amongst itself with similar hand signals, allowing for some degree of autonomy within the structure. This added a unique visual element to the performance.
Live, listeners were presented with a dense, undulating wall of Braxtonian chamber music, constantly shifting, with too many lines and ideas to follow in real time. Nonetheless, it was an exhilarating experience. The recording loses some of this presence and urgency, but is still a remarkable example of Braxton’s output. The man is a genre to himself.
The next day, Braxton was joined by Bynum and Kyoko Kitamura for a trio set. Again, the line consisted of several hundred people, stretching over three blocks. Inside the standing-only venue, I was able to get within a few feet of the performers.
The trio format was in stark contrast to the previous day’s ensemble. Here, Braxton, Bynum, and Kitamura engaged in an intimate dialog. Each of them employed extended techniques, with Kitamura singing, talking, and scatting, while other others responded in turn. Braxton played his signature rapid lines and punctuated staccato, while Bynum provided longer-held tones in the background.
Again, the hand signals were present, controlling the chaos. But the music is necessarily more sparse, with periods of pre-established themes and motifs around which the trio quietly improvises. Between these are sudden explosions and blow-outs.
I’m finding that I like this recording more than I remember enjoying the show. Standing for an hour in a crowd is not as appealing as it used to be. But when listened to in a more relaxed and familiar environment, the subtleties of the trio’s interaction becomes more apparent.
This pair of recording present two sides of the Braxton coin – large and small ensemble. Ultimately, both are highly recommended because each of their disparate uses of space and freedom help set the context for the other.