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Anthony Braxton: Quartet (GTM) 2006

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“The underground is great once you get used to it,” writes Anthony Braxton in the liner notes to this multi-disc set, one of many in the reedman-composer’s elephantine discography. He’s speaking as an artist, but the same truth applies to listeners. “Getting used to it” is exactly the frame of mind in which to digest these four challenging discs, each representing a single composition without breaks or ID markers: a combined total of 224 minutes of music, stretching oceanlike into the distance.

Braxton has declared an end to his Ghost Trance Music period, but the documentation of GTM is apparently not complete. On this 2006 session, recorded at his Wesleyan University home base, he plays Composition Nos. 338, 340, 341 and 346 with pianist Max Heath, bassist Carl Testa and percussionist Aaron Siegel. Those familiar with the voluminous Nine Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (Firehouse 12) will recognize Testa and Siegel as the rhythm section-for lack of a better term-of Braxton’s 12+1tet. Jettisoning the strings, brass and multiple reeds of the larger group and paring down to a quartet, Braxton pursues a radically different economy of sound. The inclusion of a keyboard instrument is notable, though not unprecedented: Braxton has recorded GTM works with accordionist Ted Reichman and pianist Kevin Uehlinger (not to mention bagpiper Matthew Welch).

In brief, GTM began as a compositional method involving long strings of notes-tone rows, essentially-stated by an ensemble in a hypnotic, pulsating unison that laid the base for ensuing improvisation. The system evolved over time through several different “species” of mounting polyrhythmic complexity. On Quartet (GTM) 2006 we hear a very advanced, late-stage iteration. Each piece begins with a spiky written line that sounds like several lines at once. Imagine dominoes tumbling at various controlled speeds, then standing back up, then tumbling again.

What Braxton is doing here is slicing the composed-improvised dichotomy at a new and suggestive angle. The players may regather to state the main theme(s) at any time, or veer off into free blowing, or enter a given set of “secondary” pieces, which are only a few bars long and sketched in multicolor graphic notation (examples appear inside the disc package).

In his playful booklet essay, Braxton calls GTM “a unique activity forum,” and this, at times, is what GTM can sound like: “activity” more than music. The composed lines themselves are marvelous, and the improvising plays out in fascinating ways, but there is little to differentiate these four lengthy pieces in terms of aesthetic thrust or even sonic particulars. Braxton plays alto and soprano (or perhaps sopranino) saxes, but not the explosive contrabass horns that have lent variety to other GTM encounters. Siegel’s numerous turns on marimba, however, are a delight, producing a lighter, more mobile group sound without drums. On Composition No. 341 Siegel moves to glockenspiel and provokes a riveting duo passage with alto, but this only accentuates the sameness of the surrounding material.

Quartet (GTM) 2006 is a sure bet for Braxton completists and connoisseurs of GTM’s metamorphosis. The more casual Braxton listener might find it oversaturating.