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Bring on Braxton! – Jan 20, Colston Hall

January 7, 2015

There’s a truly rare event at Colston’s Hall’s Lantern in a couple of weeks – the first appearance in the UK for a decade or more by the endlessly creative and often mesmerising Anthony Braxton. It should excite open-minded jazz and new music listeners alike.

Here’s a man who has ploughed his own furrow for half a century, declining to fit into anyone else’s definitiions of genre or style. That makes his work hard to describe, but he has certainly achieved great things in several different musical zones. John Fordham put it well nearly 30 years ago when he wrote that: “Braxton is the most prolific composer ever to be a master improvising saxophonist, and the most inventive improviser ever to have conceived 300-odd compositions in 20 years”.

He is unquestionably a jazz master (a designation confirmed as it happens by the US National Endownment for the Arts last year, as he comments wryly in this very nice but short interview – with music – here

He has complete command of the tradition and of all the saxophones and clarinets (and I mean all, he usually has a walrus-grumping contrabass clarinet to hand when he performs). Sax influences easily discernible in his playing include Coltrane, Dolphy, Desmond and Konitz, as well as the often under-rated Warne Marsh. (Improbably, it now feels, he spent time in a Dave Brubeck ensemble, way back).

And he has made more or less straightforward jazz albums-a-plenty. They include two splendid volumes of standards with the impeccable quartet of Tete Montoliu, Niels-Henning Pederson and Tootie Heath, an album of duets with Dave Holland, a sideman gig on Holland’s classic Conference of the Birds, one of the most beautiful recordings of the last half-century, and – a personal favourite – another  scalding duet set with Max Roach on Birth and Rebirth, in which he holds his own in a series of improvisations with the great drummer working at his peak. He’s played Monk with Mal Waldron and Scott Joplin with Muhal Richard Abrams.

This, though, is only scratching the surface. My Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD lists over 50 recordings in print, in 2002. Now there are lots more. And the “jazz” leaning works are only one side of his vast output. He has also had artistic and intellectual love affairs with Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and John Cage, and has affinities with contemporary classical music as deeply rooted as his jazz allegiances. I like his own description of himself: “I have been a professional student of music”.

I don’t know exactly what the gig at Colston Hall, astonishingly his only UK date, will be like. I can say that the quartet billed is a supergroup of its kind, featuring the brilliant Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet and other horns, guitarist Mary Halverson and adding German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, once an adornment to the London scene, now resident in the US. All have worked extensively with the composer, and should do justice to his work. Halverson talks about him engagingly here.

They will play some of the pieces he calls Diamond Curtain Wall Music, featured briefly in the first video above. They involve pre-programmed but interactive electronics along with the musicians. A recent gig in the US was reviewed in the New York Times here, with Ben Ratliff working impressively hard to find words to describe how it sounded.

From that it seems as if you shouldn’t expect too much in the way of conventional reference points in this show – swinging riffs, chord changes, blue notes. The right approach, I reckon, will be the same as with any new and unfamiliar music, really – approach it with open ears, putting aside as many preconceptions as you can, and let the performers take you where they will. With Braxton in the lead, that will almost certainly be into a world with sounds you have never heard before. I can’t wait.

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