Label: Firehouse 12 Records, 2019
Personnel – Anthony Braxton: sopranino and soprano, alto, baritone, bass, and contrabass saxophones; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, piccolo, bass trumpet; Nels Cline: electric guitar; Greg Saunier: drums.
The prolific multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, a legendary avant-gardist, sees the record label Firehouse 12 release a 4-CD box set of the unique experience that was gathering an all-star quartet in New Haven in 2014, featuring guitarist Nels Cline, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, and drummer Greg Saunier. Each CD runs for approximately one hour, homaging guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Merle Haggard, and vocalists Janis Joplin and James Brown, and unveiling Braxton’s musical interests for other genres aside from jazz and modern classical. He and his bandmates put together something meant to challenge, unnerving the listener with abstract instrumentations and angular melodic expressions filled with arcane charms.
“Improvisation One (for Jimi Hendrix)” is equipped with the untamed, blazing postures of psychedelic rock scattered throughout a session that also includes twisty drones, incisive ostinatos, reactive drum work, and occasional washes of noise poured out from Cline’s guitar, which carries enough spark to burn, not with Hendrix’s eternal fire, but with its own. Glorious dissonances and ebullient ricochets within a variety of dynamics are part of an entertaining game peppered with bi-directional free improvisations and stately collective layouts. It ends noiselessly with guitar harmonics and the momentary snarls of snare and toms.
As expected, “Improvisation Two (For Janis Joplin)” is not as bluesy as the songs of the rocker they pay tribute to but denotes flashes of that rustic hard rock sound that characterized her sound in the transition of the ‘60s to the ‘70s. Even starting unrugged with singing lines, fragmented drumming, and conversational rhythmic figures, the piece welcomes a lot more distortion, animated slogans, and post-psychedelia than Joplin could have ever dreamed about. Lovely sax/drums dialogues make an impact, giving their way to a set of incantatory atmospheres structured with discipline. It all ends in a furious space battle oversupplied with looming tension while the group’s offbeat brand of virtuosity is put on display.
There are no real funk expectations on the James Brown-dedicated “Improvisation Three”, but some of its colors can be found scattered throughout. Constantly in progress, the music has its grooviest moments in the combination of theatrical saxophone and brass drifts, unexpected post-apocalyptic guitar explosions and ever-adaptable percussive streams. Scorning laughs and bitter cries cut through the chordal fluxes and arrays of shaking trills (drums included), giving impetus to drama. Of course, any funk machine would be swallowed by the immensity of this composite of avant-jazz and post-rock.
“Improvisation Four (For Merle Haggard)” initially features the cavernous cogitation, bite, and swagger of Braxton’s contrabass saxophone. Cline’s mix of clear and nebulous guitar comping is perfect for the occasion, and the succeeding cyclic movements, some with fiery contrapuntal discernment and some other with seductively dark charisma, often feel more disquieting than soothing. This is valid, even when the group resolves to refrain their gustiness.
These enigmatic sounds and abrasive interplay might startle and dumbfound the unprepared listener, while avant-jazz regulars will be delighted with a four-hour document of massive creativity.
03 - Improvisation Three (for James Brown) ► 04 - Improvisation Four (for Merle Haggard)