AMN Reviews: Anthony Braxton – 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 (2021; Firehouse 12 Records)

The genius of Anthony Braxton is well-established even without this 11-hour epic release of his ZIM Music. In short, Braxton uses musical systems to inform his composition as well as the improvisation of performers including himself. ZIM Music is one of his more recent systems that employs what he refers to as “gradient logics”. These are properties of music that change, including tempo and mood. In some situations, performers are given “technically impossible” notation and are tasked with improvising a playable variation thereof. Regardless, ZIM Music is a further lock on the 76-year-old Braxton’s legacy.

This set is split over 12 long tracks recorded between March 2017 and May 2018 in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. The core lineup in addition to Braxton on sax is Taylor Ho Bynum (brass), Dan Peck (tuba), Jacquline Kerrod (harp), and Shelley Burgon (harp). Other members on various tracks include Tomeka Reid (cello), Adam Matlock (accordion), Jean Cook (violin), Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Ingrid Laubrock (sax), Brandee Younger (harp), and Miriam Overlach (harp).

Rather than deconstruct Braxton’s processes, let’s concentrate on the outcome. These ensembles produce modern chamber music that is both raw and refined. Extended techniques are used on various instruments to generate scratchy or percussive textures. Most notably, the unusual instrumentation provides novel sound palettes with harp, tuba, and accordion pushing the boundaries. The result is too classical for jazz, too jazzy for classical, and too abstract for easy categorization. If nothing else, this release is further evidence that Braxton can apply his systems to virtually any combination of instruments or sound sources.

But with enough listens, the ZIM Music patterns emerge. Often, the group is split into two or three subgroups that seem to work in a loosely-coupled fashion. As on Composition No. 408, you might hear pulse tracks from tuba and violin, tumbling accordion melodies, prickly harp, and Braxton’s signature runs. Or Composition 419, which begins with a set of 3-4 semi-improvised melodies running in parallel. But as soon as the musicians settle into one discernable combination of methods, the participants and roles change. Thus, the ever-present gradients – knotty slopes to be sure.

Further, ZIM Music covers a broad spectrum of sounds, styles, and approaches, from the fluttering to the guttural, from the squeaky to the glacial, from the dense to the sparse. All of these and more are present in most tracks, with Composition No. 410 being a notable example. There doesn’t seem to be a pre-defined beginning or end to these pieces, however. The group plays until they stop. Along the way, they cover a lot of ground that falls within the rough box of avant / modern small-ensemble music, though Braxton in particular isn’t opposed to throwing in a bit of jazz or blues inflections.

Given its length and detail, 2 Comp (ZIM) 2017 is a daunting ask for the listener. I found myself taking the album in phases that shifted between active and passive attentiveness. But whenever I focused on the sounds coming out of my speakers, it was nothing short of wonderful. This is a beautifully unconventional and challenging production. Well done, all.