Anthony Braxton: Knitting Factory (Piano/Quartet) 1994, Vol. 2

The initial volume from these concerts proved one of the 1990s’ more startling releases. It marked the first time we’d heard the Braxton piano quartet and, in particular, the first time in over 20 years we’d heard Braxton’s piano playing. “A strange and wondrous thing,” as Stuart Broomer describes it in his CD notes, “a kind of fluttery cluster stabbing, with passages of complex rhythmic knotting, chord flights up and down the keyboard, and dissonant splashes thrown in.” Braxton’s piano playing may sound strange in itself-it certainly has no single obvious antecedent-but the context makes it sound stranger. As with his other ’90s piano recordings, Braxton’s repertoire here is “in the tradition,” a couple of standards plus several jazz classics from the period, late ’40s to early ’60s, when as a youngster he first fell in love with this music. So there are pieces by favorite composers-Miles, Mingus, Monk, Benny Golson-plus others where, presumably, the specific composition attracted him: “Tadd’s Delight,” “Blue Bossa,” “Little Niles.” The subsequent tensions that the group explores-between performance and material, expectation and revision-provide much of the music’s fascination.

The main contrast is between Marty Ehrlich, whose ripe, expressive saxophones and clarinet broadly affirm traditional values before stretching out (to a degree), and Braxton, whose probing, turbulent pianism immediately unstitches convention and opens up unsuspected spaces in the music. (Bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff do a superb job of holding the common ground.) Highlights include a richly embellished “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” and a poignant, delicate “When Sunny Gets Blue.”

History? Memory? Dream? These performances are like a collage of all three, resisting the single perspective, uniformity, closure. In Braxton’s hands, the old songs continue to surprise us; the past still has a future.