Box sets can be intimidating, especially one such as Quartet (New Haven) 2014. Clocking in at four hours, it is a serious time commitment in a digital world with non-stop interruptions, even though this is not a particularly extensive offering by Anthony Braxton’s standards. The set consists of four discs with one hour-long track per disc, each dedicated to an influential musician – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown, and Merle Haggard.
Braxton handles sax duties as expected, and is joined by long-time collaborator Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, flugelhorn, trumpets, and trumpbone. The group is rounded out by guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Greg Saunier. The latter two are known for being members of off-beat rock groups Wilco and Deerhoof, respectively.
Braxton’s compositions are systemic, in that they incorporate various degrees of pre-established elements and open areas for improvisation, often allowing on-the-fly mixing and matching of parts. These long pieces seem to offer far more of the latter, as any discernable themes are introduced then rapidly left behind. Indeed, this effort comes across as wildly free improv more than anything else.
And even if not intended to be heard in that fashion, what a loosely-structured success it is. Braxton and Bynum trade melodies and tight runs, either in the form of rapid-fire notes or angular noises. But Cline – and to a lesser extent, Saunier – practically steal the show. Particularly, Cline sculpts distorted chording, feedback, and disjoint motifs into non-stop and rarely repeating explorations. Saunier shifts between keeping a semblance of a beat and free-form breaks.
As a whole, this quartet covers a great deal of ground in terms of texture, tempo, and volume. It is a heady, frenetic, and challenging mix that will easily hold up to repeated listens.