April 1997

Anthony Braxton
Piano Music (Notated) 1968-1988, Volumes 1 and 2
Hat Hut

We're not talking jazz here: this is Anthony Braxton's "contemporary" or "serious" music bag, and it has little to do with his work with Circle (1970) or his Creative Orchestra Music (1976) or even his Charlie Parker Project (1993, also on hat ART). It's closer to Stockhausen and Boulez, contemporary European composers Braxton attuned himself to living in Paris in the '70s. Those who have followed Braxton's extra-jazz musical life will not be surprised that the music contains no overt references to bop, no walking bass-lines or Charlie Parker quotes. The eleven compositions for piano are scored, more or less, and in a few cases (#10) graphically indicated. Pianist Hildegard Kleeb, who performs them solo (or overdubbed), is ostensibly neither a bebopper nor a "new" jazz player (we are given no bio, just her photo and elements of her bold interpretation by notester Art Lange) but she can play, plan intrigues, sustain moods, shade dramatically.

This stuff is not an easy listen, even for the broad-minded, among whom I daily attempt to number myself with challenges like this. The early, shorter pieces (#1, #5, #10) show mobility and agility, can turn on a silver dollar, like a Cecil Taylor solo. The later (1973-4) pieces concern themselves more with texture than line, and can get amazingly long, dense and ponderous. On #32, Kleeb hammers out or daubs clusters [fisticuffed block chords] for a solid 35 minutes! Like Olivier Messaien on a loop. Heavy hitting? Actually, once my ear got acclimatized to the fuzzy and dense pitch, I was able to focus on dynamic shading, like floating cloud forms or abstract figure formations.

And all the pieces are more involved in puzzle solving than mere execution, as if Monk were writing 40-page scores instead of 16-bar ditties; this fact puts the performer in the limelight (and the driver's seat) to a lesser degree than a jazz player but greater than a classical interpreter. Some pieces are convertible, selectable in parts; Lange tells us that such diverse performers as Frederic Rzewski and Marilyn Crispell have played portions of these pieces solo and in ensemble.

A few hooks (sultry, eastern arabesques float and trill through #31, Part 1) and aural markers (grand pauses in #16) do stand out like beacons in what at first listen seems chaos. Yet I have little doubt that 5% of the non-playing readers of this magazine, and maybe 10% of the musicians, would bother to give this a listen. (To be fair, the percentage might climb no higher in classical music magazines.) It's not for air play or feel-good grooving. There'll be plenty of cries of "Fake!" and "Jive!" But you know what? The cats with the really big ears-like Charlie Parker himself-might just give it a chance, as he did in the '40s with Bartok and Stravinsky. They even might dig some of it.

Originally published in April 1997
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