CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Tropos Explores the Limits of Composition

The quintet of NEC graduates honor Anthony Braxton on debut album

Tropos (L to R): Zachary Lavine, Phillip Golub, Laila Smith, Mario Layne Fabrizio, and Raef Sengupta. (photo: Marena Lin)
Tropos (L to R): Zachary Lavine, Phillip Golub, Laila Smith, Mario Layne Fabrizio, and Raef Sengupta (photo: Marena Lin)

In homage to Anthony Braxton, the collective of five New England Conservatory graduates called Tropos titled their debut release on Biophilia Records Axioms // 75ab. Besides acknowledging the saxophonist/composer’s 75th birthday this past June, and referencing his “Tri-Axiom” music, the title ties into the six interpretations of Braxton compositions on the album. It would be inaccurate to consider the quintet a repertoire band, though, and that’s not just because their lineup of voice, piano, saxophone, bass, and drums reshapes the music. The Braxton pieces follow five works written by members of Tropos, and together they reveal a group deeply focused on compositions and ways to improvise within them.

Although they had crossed paths with each other previously, the members of Tropos—Phillip Golub (piano), Laila Smith (vocals), Raef Sengupta (alto saxophone), Mario Layne Fabrizio (drums), and Zachary Lavine (bass), all in their mid-to-late twenties—truly came together two years ago in an NEC class that studied composers like Braxton, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor. Guitarist Joe Morris taught the course and encouraged the students to improvise in a manner based less on composition and more on the development of group interaction. The process was very similar to ideas that Golub, Fabrizio, and Lavine had gleaned from keyboardist Anthony Coleman while studying early jazz from the 1910s through the 1930s. “Both those eras of music are extremely connected,” Golub notes. “They’re trying to answer the question, ‘How can we be free when we’re playing music together? How can we be organized but also free?’ Every individual is free within it, but there is a collective logic to it.”

The ensemble class with Morris included additional musicians, but as the school year proceeded, the collective bond between the five future Tropos members became clear. “It was almost like a weekly band rehearsal,” Golub says. “[We thought] obviously when the dust falls from graduating, we’re going to make a record and see what happens.”

Tropos’ improvisational skills were enhanced by a great deal of time in the practice space. “The rehearsal is the most important part,” Fabrizio says. “I guess it’s how we search for the actual sound of the music. It’s not the paper and it’s hard to understand what it sounds like outside of one’s own head because one’s own head is completely different from what is happening out in the creative sphere.”

Golub agrees, offering a unique perspective on the Tropos approach to performance. “If we think of the composition as a punching bag,” he says, “what are all the different ways that we can punch it before it breaks and no longer is a composition? We’re learning about those limits and how we can push on it, and what we like to do with it.”

Their original pieces can vary wildly with each performance; some alternate takes, Golub says, have radically different dynamics from versions that appear on the album. Regardless, the group moves so cohesively that the percussive clatter during a Cecil Taylor-esque piano break in “Marquis 8” sounds tightly orchestrated when in fact it happens spontaneously. Smith’s voice functions like an instrument, often moving in close quarters with Sengupta’s alto. In the spritely “Fronk” she cuts into some impressive wails and intervallic jumps that reveal her imaginative approach to freedom.

The group limited themselves to Braxton compositions from the ’70s and ’80s, which their author had originally recorded in a quartet. “They all have different conceits and different energies,” Golub says. “Each one is compelling for a different reason and brought distinct things out in the band.”

Continuing the approach they’d taken in their classroom, the group didn’t adhere to Braxton’s recordings when preparing for the album. “23c”—originally a through-composed cumulative song in which each verse gets extended slightly from the previous one—finds the band bending and twisting the melody. “23e,” originally a pensive 17-minute tribute to Albert Ayler built on long tones and Dave Holland’s fierce bowing, is much shorter than the original, and sounds closer to a chamber piece.

When it came time to assemble artwork for Biophilia’s unique origami-influenced 20-panel covers, Fabrizio recreated Braxton’s idiosyncratic symbols that serve as composition titles, adding another layer of interpretation. “Mario kind of redrew them to his own aesthetic,” Golub says. “It fits in with what we were trying to do: internalize what we learned from Braxton and go in our own direction, make some turns with it.”

Currently the members of the group are spread out between Boston (Fabrizio, Sengupta), New York City (Golub, Lavine), and Los Angeles (Smith), but they’re still active. Neither Golub nor Fabrizio rule out more Braxton in their future. However, the next Tropos project is just as likely to be radically different from Axioms // 75ab. “I think we’re a collective of people who are trying to grow infinitely, trying to create new things and not stick to one thing,” Fabrizio says. “We’re going to do different things each time.”

Learn more about Axioms // 75ab on Amazon!

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.