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Anthony Braxton: An American Visionary

A restless musical and cultural searcher celebrates his 69th birthday

Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton conducts his opera "Trillium J" at Brooklyn's Roulette in April 2014 (photo: Scott Friedlander)
Anthony Braxton in 1976

In early April, Anthony Braxton stood in a seventh-floor rehearsal studio blocks from Times Square conducting his latest opera, Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables). A group of avant-garde luminaries buried their heads in the complex score. “Sellout, sellout, sellout,” sang Taylor Ho Bynum in a haunting ostinato. For Braxton, an avant-garde multireedist and composer who has never compromised his creative vision over a five-decade career, the pejorative was in no way autobiographical. “Suddenly, it might be possible to get on network television after all,” Ho Bynum recited in a sprechgesang reminiscent of Schoenberg, concluding the scene.

Braxton has never been primetime material, but he did appear in an NPR webcast Jan. 13 when he was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room. The previous month he’d ended his decades-long tenure at Wesleyan University, where he developed a pedagogy that nurtured current avant-garde luminaries like Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson. He celebrates his 69th birthday on June 4 and commemorated the milestone with a 10-day festival in New York in April, pairing his past and present work with that of his acolytes, among them Nate Wooley, Fay Victor and James Fei. The fest culminated in a staged reading of Trillium J at Roulette in Brooklyn. (Why 69 and not 70? Because of Braxton’s affinity for odd numbers and multiples of three.)

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