2 by 2
Anthony Braxton and Buell Neidlinger could have dug into any number of concepts in a duo performance, considering the saxophonist’s prolific output and the bassist’s far-ranging résumé (Cecil Taylor’s original quartet, Frank Zappa and orchestra gigs) and his love of composers like Xenakis. Although these two sets from 1989 feature a lot of spontaneous invention, a few Thelonious Monk classics link everything together. Two years prior, Neidlinger played on Braxton’s Six Monk’s Compositions (1987), so the rapport was already established before they hit the stage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif.
Unlike the pianist who composed the pieces, our heroes use Monk’s themes as jumping-off points, in Braxton’s case for a never-ending stream of ideas. Neidlinger walks steadily through the changes behind him, an admirable task considering the leaps Braxton makes in “Criss Cross” or the directions he takes in general. The nine choruses on “Well, You Needn’t” are almost excessive, but the clarity of his double-time playing keeps it impressive; it also inspires Neidlinger’s strongest solo, which includes some slippery double stops. “’Round Midnight” can challenge anyone who attempts to add something new to the tune, but this brief rendition ends after one chorus, with Neidlinger playing the melody, making it a wise and clever take.
Braxton, as usual, plays a variety of saxophones throughout, this time sticking closer to the higher-ranged, portable ones. “Tonight the Night” [sic]—which sounds spontaneous but begins with the same theme in both sets—finds him going from sopranino to soprano and alto in the first set, building up a furious energy that almost sounds like two horns blurring together when he returns to soprano toward the end. He also whips out the C-melody sax during the second set, and the audience sounds more enthusiastic than the polite crowd in the first. Fans of Braxton’s For Alto squonk will devour this set, which also features dizzying soprano runs that evoke John Coltrane’s climactic moments in “My Favorite Things”—with a higher-octane blow. When “Off Minor” reappears at the end of the second set, in a shorter form, it flows easily out of the second “Tonight the Night,” as if to prove that these two consider both styles with a similar passion. Likewise, these recordings may be more than two decades old, but they sound as fresh as if they were recorded last week.