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Anthony Braxton: Quintet (Basel) 1977 (HatHut)

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Anthony Braxton: Quintet (Basel) 1977 (HatHut)

With reissues it is all about the package. This package is deficient. The verbal diarrhea of Art Lange’s uninformative liner essay fills three panels of the cover. And the sound sucks.

Yet Lange is not wrong when he says that this “temporary, even fleeting ensemble” was one of Anthony Braxton’s strongest. On the evidence of the first track alone, “Composition 69 J,” George Lewis is the best musician to ever play avant-garde jazz on trombone. He is as fast (and fearless, and reckless) as any trumpet badass. Drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw and bassist Mark Helias rarely worked with Braxton. Shaw’s racket sometimes becomes static, but Helias turbocharges this music. The revelation here is Muhal Richard Abrams. Few Braxton bands have had a piano chair. The harmonic relativity of Braxton’s world almost precludes pianists. Abrams opens new vistas upon every Braxton song he touches—or, rather, every Braxton song he drowns in wild lyric onslaughts.

There are actual songs, even if their rapid oscillations sometimes sound more like the work of a mad scientist than an artist. And the players do use these forms for reference, even if, within the contrapuntal ensemble frenzies, nuances of interconnection are obscured by the bad sound. Like all Braxton music, this live concert recording is disorienting, exhausting and uplifting. It is a rush of release when a band this manic suddenly discovers bebop, however atonal, and swings, like on “Composition 69 N/G.”

Braxton’s priority is the group entity, but there are some truly harrowing solos here. Braxton’s shrill, compulsively repetitive sopranino saxophone can wear you out, until he finds beauty, blindingly bright. Lewis’ mad dashes careen crazily but never quite capsize. A Braxton concert is its own strange séance, not a show. If it were a show, Abrams and his vast, tumultuous, sublime piano would steal it.

Originally Published