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Concert: Anthony Braxton at Kennedy Center, Washington DC, 12-15-12

Some bolt for the exits, others exalt

Maybe every person who walked out in the middle of Anthony Braxton’s performance at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night, his first appearance there in 20 years, was a seed that had been planted.

The center’s audience is always full of Washington policymakers and legal sages, for whom jazz can represent not so much a method of conscious escape as an affirmation: of their stature, their urbanity, even their American-ness. They often don’t know what sounds they’re in for until they sit down. It seemed as if each abrupt exit (there were 48, by one critic’s count) was preceded by a question, sometimes whispered aloud, but more often, you can presume, asked internally. What are they doing? This is jazz? Will all the dissonance ever stop? Is he doing this on purpose? (Behind me, I heard a statement: “I can’t take this anymore.”)

Those questions, no matter how frustrated, were a sort of victory in themselves. For one, they mean people will head off to their coworkers and cocktail parties ranting about how they had their minds bent out of shape by this guy Anthony Braxton, who’s supposed to be some sort of genius.

Even for the enamored, Braxton’s music is made of wonder. You’re never sure how much of it is improvised, or what his famously convoluted notation system is communicating to his bandmates.

Those who held on for the ride heard Braxton’s “Composition #367F plus #241,” an hour-plus of brittle tone and teasing harmony and subtle narrative. He appeared with his Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet-featuring Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet-plus the pianist Jason Moran as a special guest. (Moran is the Kennedy Center’s jazz advisor, and the man responsible for bringing this rebel into the royal court.)

At the start of the concert, Braxton turned over a big hourglass sitting alone on a round end table, then clicked on his computer. It had software that allowed it to create sound in real time, reacting to the live improvisers, but it started before they did, a high electric hum that built into a dissonant ring. The horn players fell into a tautly bending repartee, scraping and pressing against the computer’s tones, with Braxton on soprano saxophone. (Onstage, he was surrounded by saxes, from the six-and-a-half-foot contrabass to the babyish C soprano. Meaningfully absent was the tenor, jazz’s most conventionally iconic horn.)

Bynum and Laubrock were easy in their communication, often hammering against the computer’s strident, long tones with punched-out hails of notes. Moran and Halvorson did a lot to spread things out, holding pitches or bare harmonies and stacking arpeggios with slow, wise care. For Halvorson, it was a negotiation with the senescence of those barbed, fragile tones she gets from the guitar; in Moran, you heard a balancing between the delicacy of touch and the corpulence of a grand piano.

The show tilted against entropy, moving into more diatonic, curvaceous sound toward the end. Digital timbres rippled and blended with the players’ restlessly held long tones; for a while, the music was full of migrating nodes, slippery tension, cinematic beauty. Then amid a slow, delicate minor passage, everything stopped. Braxton briskly bent down, introduced the band in succession, and ended the show. The few hundred people who remained in the auditorium stood up, clapped, cheered loudly and demanded a curtain call.

Originally Published