Certain recording projects are so vast in their conceptual scope that attempting to process their remit can feel like being a test pilot in a science-fiction drama. So, buckle up, buckaroo, for this 12-CD Anthony Braxton odyssey that features none of Braxton’s horn play and centers exclusively on his vision as a composer for voice of what Braxton terms the Rosetta Stone of his music systems, that being the Ghost Trance Music compositional decoder ring. I can find that kind of thing screwy—if you have to serve me much exegesis in terms of what you’re up to, the music is normally not accessible. Luckily, for all of his depth, Braxton has always been. Mostly. This isn’t exactly sitting down to kick back with a Horace Silver jam, but we have entered the lair of the jazz sirens.
The Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble is basically the house band of these sessions, with member Kyoko Kitamura acting as Braxton’s aide-de-camp in his exploration of polyphony. Cut in mid-January of 2017, each vocal symphony immediately invokes a sonic mise-en-scène, suggesting a laboratory rather than a recording studio. With the opening “Composition No. 192,” funereal voices enter as if borne atop winds, remnants from a concluded service for the dead. Those voices modulate into a bebop bridge that sounds like a choir of Charlie Parker solos.
You never know which direction this music will venture in next—not unlike what you hear on Braxton’s 1969 solo album For Alto; it’s as if that lone voice had invited friends over. These parties, though, if parties they be, are long-sustaining affairs, each composition lasting about an hour. “Composition No. 254” is like some protracted Sesame Street aural tapestry featuring the Count, with the choir using numbers and letters for what constitute their central refrains. This may be the jazz vocal version of coding.
Here’s a number to keep in mind: how many times, after listening to this set once, you might listen to it again. If the over/under is three, I’d say bet the under. Because, why, exactly, return repeatedly? This is music to think through, less so music to do anything else to—and that includes pondering in non-algebraic ways. Still, this ensemble has serious chops. On “Composition No. 340,” it sounds like a woodwind section, with the full range of that musical family housed in these human voices. Taken as a whole, GTM (Syntax) 2017 is like being in rebarbative and bel canto realms at once. The push and pull of a puzzle.