In trying in his writings and interviews to outline a broader concept of music appreciation than is captured simply by the idea of the ‘listener’, Anthony Braxton often refers to the idea of the ‘friendly experiencer’. This broader idea is a particularly useful one in the context of Braxton’s work, which has, over the years, included many multi-media elements, and which even when ostensibly ‘purely’ musical, can be hugely involving in a literal sense, often simply because of the forces involved (music for 100 tubas, anyone?).
This record, a wonderfully recorded duo from 2006 with trumpeter John McDonough, is nothing less than a fully-fledged example of the Braxton sound-world (of which Braxton’s selflessness seems to be one of the defining characteristics: however dominant the invisible hand of his influence may be in creative music nowadays, he always gives his collaborators equal voice, and honours their concepts and languages as faithfully as he does his own): but, insofar as there are just the two musicians’ concepts to contend with here, I think we could call it ‘friendly music’ for ‘friendly experiencers’.
My own view is that anyone asking ‘why do we need another Anthony Braxton record?’ is asking the wrong question. But I can see that in fact this album does have practical importance, insofar as it provides an excellent ‘way in’ to a number of aspects of Braxton’s work. First, major recent Braxton duo records have been 4 CD sets – with Joe Morris (on Clean Feed) and Gerry Hemingway (on Mode); not a cheap, or immediately digestible, way in to an aspect of an artist’s work.
Second, much of Braxton’s recent work has been overwhelming in other ways: take for example the works for 12+1 musicians, lasting for an hour, with endlessly involving and evolving compositional structures (an outstanding example would be 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 on Firehouse 12). And in fact, this overwhelming nature is for me much of the appeal of the music: as a friendly experiencer, one can either concentrate fiercely, or by contrast simply switch off, and allow oneself to become lost and immersed in the streams of music. I don’t find this to be an ‘oppressive’ sensation – the soundworld is never a wilfully obtuse one; and in fact, usually quite the opposite.
But it is an overwhelming sensation nonetheless; and of course, to be ‘surrounded’ by the sound – however benign – in this way is not always what we’re after as listeners. The duo, however, I think of as inherently approachable, ‘friendly’ setting. It is both a friendly, and a fascinating, context. On the one hand, it one in which ‘ensemble’ – in the sense, for example, of melodic or rhythmic unisons – can be very clearly exploited; whilst on the other, it is a context which, perhaps to a larger extent than any other, allows the partners simultaneously to plough their own furrows: in other words, where the sense of ‘ensemble’ can emerge from nothing more concrete than the empathy of two musicians creating sound in the same space. Jump in to a point in the middle of the ‘Improvisation’ or ‘Composition 168 (+103)’ here, and you can hear Braxton and McDonough in apparently completely different musical territories. Listen to the track through, though, and you can follow exactly how each musician has got to where they are, and that they both apparently have their eyes on the same point on the horizon, whichever path they’re plotting to get there.
Braxton, at once the most empathetic and the most doggedly individual of musicians, is a master of the context, in part I think because these twin attributes let him and his partner take such interesting paths through the compositions – the individuality is the compass, and the empathy the safety net; and in this respect, this album strongly recalled the wonderful John Carter/Bobby Bradford duo. They’re tight and grooving one moment, and the next one, or other partner has been able to turn left without any awkwardness at all. One other upshot of this empathy – heard throughout the album, but ‘Finnish Line’ is a particularly nice example – is that the transitions in and out of composed and improvised material are made so seamlessly; the compositions can feel at the same time completely lucid, and completely open-ended.
McDonough is not someone with whose playing I was familiar before hearing this, although I enjoyed him a great deal here. Like Bradford – to whose cornet sound his burnished trumpet tone is probably more similar than it is to jazz trumpet qua jazz trumpet – McDonough’s playing is definitely from the tradition, with various New Orleans and early Ellington voices coming through particularly clearly for me.
And, yes, the marching bands. Don’t let anyone call Sousa’s ‘Hail to the Spirit of Liberty’ a novelty here: it’s all part of a post-AACM ‘freedom to’ rather than ‘freedom from’ sensibility. It’s four minutes of the Braxton of the 1970s ‘Creative Orchestra Music 1976’, giving the lie to the idea that we all need to be terribly earnest to be creative. There are all sorts of these gems in Braxton’s discography: those I go back to most often would be the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (Joplin) and ‘Miss Ann’ (Dolphy) from the duo album with Muhal Richard Abrams, and – to hear both musicians swing like crazy – ‘Ornithology’ from ‘Elements of Surprise’ with George Lewis.
The Nessa label achieves consistently high quality. Alongside Chuck Nessa’s new releases (such as this and a recent live Von Freeman album), he continues to reissue some of the most important creative music we have (from Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Hal Russell, Fred Anderson, and many others), and always with immaculate production values. 6 Duos (Wesleyan) 2006 can be recommended without reservation.
Anthony Braxton’s ‘Tri-Centric Foundation’ website, recently launched, is a fascinating resource for further exploration of the work of one of the modern masters . The Alexander Hawkins Ensemble is at Cafe Oto next Tuesday April 5th . See Alexander Hawkins’ website for details