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Anthony Braxton: 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005 Phonomanie VIII

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At the beginning of his career and for decades to follow, Anthony Braxton made exceptional recordings. Each seemed more inspired than the last, due in no small part to the cohorts he worked with: first, his contemporaries in Chicago’s AACM; later, younger New York-based free-jazz musicians who, while not as celebrated as Braxton, were nonetheless world-class improvisers. Over the last several years, Braxton has increasingly chosen sidemen from a pool of lesser musicians, few of them distinguished, many of them his students at Wesleyan University. Moreover, he’s become as likely to wield a baton as a saxophone, conducting his compositions for larger ensembles. As a consequence, his recent recordings (with some exceptions) seldom approach the level of his best work. These two live albums, made just weeks apart in May and June 2005, are flawed-in the case of the first, deeply so. Still, they occasionally hint at a return to form.

The four discs comprising 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005 Phonomanie VIII present several of Braxton’s most recent guises. Disc one consists of “Composition 301,” a solo piano work performed by Genevieve Fouccroule. Braxton calls his piano music “a direct extension of my interest in the post Schoenberg/Webern school…including the great piano music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.” Indeed. Rigorously composed and at least partly serialist, “Composition 301” is remindful of Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke. Pianist Fouccroule covers the notes, but adds little in terms of interpretation. While packed with ideas, the composition’s formal obscurity and a general lack of dynamism work against it.

Disc two is also problematic. “Composition No. 96 + 134” is performed by the 17-piece, presumably ad-hoc Ulrichsberg Tri-Centric Ensemble. On the plus side, there’s some exemplary solo work, and the composer’s ambition is commendable. Overall, however, it is at best uneven. Braxton’s three-conductor technique is an interesting concept, but here the result is a not-very-musical, barely organized cacophony. Various groupings try to play with and against each other to occasionally interesting but usually incomprehensible ends. Like so many improvising large ensembles (train wrecks by William Parker- and Cecil Taylor-led big bands come to mind), this is a tough slog.

Infinitely better is disc three’s “Composition 323a for Trio (with electronics),” a mostly improvised work featuring Braxton on reeds and electronics, Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet, and Aaron Siegel on percussion. The leader’s subtle and spare use of electronics adds attractive textures, but the substance of the music is provided by the musicians’ interactivity. Bynum is as close to being Braxton’s peer as any of the composer’s recent associates, an agile and creative improviser who sounds like no one but himself. Siegel’s playing rejects forward momentum, but he has big ears and a nice sense of what’s appropriate. Braxton plays as energetically and inventively as ever. He may view himself as a composer, but Braxton’s best work has always featured his improvising on various horns in a small-group format. His most compelling ideas are usually those he expresses spontaneously.

Disc four presents “Compositions No. 169 + 147,” another Tri-Centric Ensemble performance. While not as successful as the trio selection, it’s much better than the earlier large-group track. Fine solos once again emerge, this time from a somewhat more coherent whole. The entire piece has a more organic feel, perhaps because it is more tonally centered than the overtly serialist “Composition No. 96 + 134.” In general the group seems at greater ease with the composition. The piece holds together reasonably well, doing better justice to Braxton’s concept. I still much prefer his small-group work, but if Braxton were able to continue producing large-ensemble music of this quality, I wouldn’t complain too much.

(Victoriaville) 2005 has Braxton’s ensemble pared down to a more manageable size, rendering his compositional ideas clearer and allowing for a more successful melding of the improvised and composed. Stripped of the clutter, melodic ideas become lucid, relationships less confused. Bynum and Siegel reprise their roles, joined by violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Chris Dahlgren, and tubaist Jay Rozen. Bynum is again splendid, his wriggling lines and imaginative manipulation of timbre a joy to behold. Rozen is an inventive and strikingly fluid improviser on the large horn, and he provides an endlessly melodic underpinning. Braxton would do well to choose more players of his caliber. The other musicians are hit or miss. Pavone can be good; she can also be unsuitably harsh and unsubtle. Dahlgren obviously listens but is made redundant by Rozen. Siegel is static, but tasteful. On saxes, Braxton is typically outstanding. As has been his wont recently, he makes a greater use of silence and timbral contrast, to some good effect. While hardly top-drawer Braxton, it’s plenty good, and the combination of Braxton, Bynum and Rozen holds a promise of better things to come.