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Anthony Braxton: 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011

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Taken together, Anthony Braxton’s three new box sets comprise 14 discs and as many hours of music, each set using a different ensemble and taking a different musical approach. But any one of the releases is by itself overwhelming. The shortest, 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011, is by no means the most accessible. Patience, then, is required for navigation.

That patience does reap rewards, if in varying degrees. The most demanding piece is Trillium J, Braxton’s four-hour, fully orchestrated opera about … well, if anything, it’s about “the concept of Affinity Insight number two,” which is explained throughout the opera without ever yielding a clue as to what it is. But each act changes settings and characters (which were never all that firm to begin with), the cast and aforementioned concept linking them. Act III, featuring a murder mystery within a haunted house, is damned entertaining, and Act IV’s villains are humorously over the top (“How could I possibly know that bringing 6,000 leprosy-infected ski caps to 248 National Township and playground areas would create a problem?”), but getting there necessitates slogging through a maddening, interminable first act and mildly amusing second. And the music contained therein is never very interesting. Most of it is dissonant accompaniment for the vocalists, whose melodies are shapeless and unmemorable; there are interludes with more substance but no more staying power. (That said, some of the visual spectacles accompanying them on the enclosed Blu-ray, in particular Act II’s “Princess of Curiosity” interludes, have a weird beauty.)

The longest of the packages, the seven-disc Quintet [Tristano] 2014, is the most digestible, at least in terms of its musical style. By far the most expansive of Braxton’s standards recordings, they cover not just the music of Lennie Tristano but the entire “Tristano School,” sharing a foundation in bebop but with its own rhythmic and harmonic signatures. True to form, Braxton’s quintet also extends into cool and free styles, the latter especially with a series of improvisations played by various subsets of his quintet. Most intriguing, Braxton plays only piano on the set, assigning his usual collection of saxophones-from contrabass to sopranino-to Jackson Moore and Andre Vida, with the rhythm section of bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Mike Szekely. His pianism delves deep into jazz; a solo on “C-Bop (Version 2),” for example, evokes Ellington, Monk and Andrew Hill as well as Tristano. But while there are highlights throughout, including a warm reading of Tristano’s “How High the Moon” contrafact “Lennie-Bird,” a declarative one of Ted Brown’s “Jazz of Two Cities” and three versions of Lee Konitz’s “Ice Cream Konitz,” seven hours of even the most welcoming music will tax the ears. Best to parcel it out.

3 Compositions is the best of the group. Each of the three pieces (Compositions 372, 373 and 377) is about an hour long, and each is mostly an undulating scrim of noodling atonal interplay not unlike the work of English composer Cornelius Cardew. But each member of his septet-cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, violist Jessica Pavone, tuba player Jay Rozen, vibraphonist Aaron Siegel, bassist/bass clarinetist Carl Testa and Braxton himself-is also equipped with an iPod that contains all of Braxton’s recorded output, and at predetermined points plays back snatches of that music, overlapping like an orchestral “Revolution 9.” Braxton’s notes-which, as usual, read like academic theory-suggest passive listening, tuning in and out as one would with ambient music, which yields delightful surprises like the sudden burst of tuneful swing about a third of the way through “Composition No. 373.” But real attention reveals marvels, too, like a sumptuous collage of melodies across the last 12 minutes of “Composition No. 372.” Whatever else Braxton does, he covers the waterfront.

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Originally Published