Review: Anthony Braxton in Bristol

BraxtonAnthony Braxton
The Lantern, Bristol
Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Anthony Braxton made an extremely rare appearance in Britain – the only one on this European tour, a real coup for Bristol’s Colston Hall – and was greeted by a big and very warmly appreciative crowd. He brought with him an orchestra of three: Mary Halvorsen on electric guitar, James Fei, alto sax, and cornet-flugelhorn-valve trombonist Taylor Ho Bynum, a longtime collaborator with Braxton. And there was a computer that issued a constant stream of ambient background sounds programmed by Braxton.
Anthony Braxton, at 70 looking like a rumpled favourite grandfather, has for 50 years taken a path that starts in jazz and then takes a route that no other has tread. It has strong roots in free jazz, but it is not that; there is a huge element of composition. As one onlooker said, “There’s obviously intelligent design there; I just can’t tell what it is.”
There were tonal centres; the music was very rarely dissonant. Generally, one player would take a lead role, playing something in a stream with continuity, while the others played a combination of short bursts of sound and subdued long notes. Usually if one horn was coming out with short stabs of sound, the other one would be playing long tones.
Mary Halvorsen, the guitarist, played combinations of dark chorded brief rhythms, those same punctuative stabs, and occasional series of chords that, in the context, seemed strangely conventional. Not to worry, though, they were few and far between.
Interestingly, Braxton himself, on alto, soprano and piccolo saxophones, was the most conventional sounding when he was in the lead role, and he took that role more than any of the others. It was still very free playing, and his tone and energy were beautiful and strong; at 70, he is not old.
They played continously – maybe 40 minutes – when, after all the disparate elements of the music unexpectedly met in one unison place and stopped and Braxton announced the interval. The audience, which had remained riveted throughout, erupted in rapturous applause. This same form repeated for the second half, the final applause even more ecstatic than the first.
Anthony Braxton’s music has the elements of all music and does what music does: evokes an emotional response and puts thoughts in your head. In the first segment particularly, there were moments, long periods, really, where it seemed naturalistic: one could very easily imagine a strong wind rattling the windows, blowing the occasional rubbish bin lid down the street, and so on. This is reminiscent of John Cage, who could hear music in everything, all the unceasing sounds around us. But much of it was just music, with or without mental pictures, but rising and falling, with elegiac passages, crescendoes, interplay and, above all, composition.

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