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Familiar Themes

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Anthony Braxton

Four Compositions (GTM) 2000

(Delmark)

Roscoe Mitchell

Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancing Shoes

(Nessa)

Ken Burns's (or anyone else's) great-man theory aside, some of jazz's most profound developments result when a nexus of players assembles to exchange information in performance, collectively shaping new dialects. At the birth of bebop, in New York in the early 1940s, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke each delivered key pieces of the puzzle. And in the early days of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, in the mid-1960s, the ideas of a short list of influential players--including Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Leroy Jenkins--permeated the scene.

These pioneers played together often, exchanging information and creating a Chicago free-jazz style that was cooler than New York's volcanic variant and mixed open improvising and complex composing. Looking back, it can be hard to discern who came up with what. One key development, common to Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton (and the later-blooming Henry Threadgill), was a new brand of avant-garde saxophone playing, in which individual notes were cleanly articulated and unusual intervals favored, in contrast to the east coasters' energy scribbles.

Mitchell and Braxton have both testified to taking inspiration from the flamboyant Albert Ayler, who shared their interest in marches and boasted a similarly striking saxophone vocabulary (if not the same one as theirs), but they'd also been listening to the biting attack and jagged wide-interval lines of Eric Dolphy. The leaping intro and outro to Dolphy's 1964 alto solo "Love Me" is a virtual template for the Braxton/Mitchell style.

Mitchell, five years older, had the head start. He brought Braxton into the AACM, and his example inspired Braxton's multi-instrumentalism and forays into spare, low-volume improvisation. They haven't recorded together so much: just one duo LP from 1976 and occasional guest shots, notably Mitchell's on Braxton's march-time double concerto "Composition 58" from his Creative Orchestra Music 1976. Both play numerous large and small saxes, write and perform music that transcends categories like jazz and classical, and record with bands that may or may not contain a conventional rhythm section.

The "jazz" label has always hindered more than helped such composers, restricting their choices; doing without contrabass and trap set is a way of asserting freedom from jazz convention as well as opening up the ensemble texture. Still, the old jazz propeller has its uses. Both the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the trio of Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and trumpeter Smith made striking music, in which the silences seemed to outweigh the sounds, but each leader has had his rough patches too. Mitchell has organized various dusty chamber ensembles, in particular a two-reed trio with generous arts patron and stiff-as-a-board baritone singer Thomas Buckner in the early 80s. Braxton's dry spell came in the late 90s, with the rise of his often blurry "Ghost Trance Music" projects, in which a gaggle of his former saxophone students (from Mills College or Wesleyan University) hung around his neck like so many albatrosses.

Braxton's new Four Compositions (GTM) 2000 is a return to form, or perhaps a retreat to it. He's the only horn player--on seven different saxophones, flute, and clarinet--and he's backed by a traditional lineup of piano, bass, and drums, played by ex-students who have a firm grasp of his concepts. The compositions are pretty much all of a piece: irregularly serrated lines played staccato and broken up by hectic double-time bits or fast and tumbling quintuplets, septuplets, and other prime-number-tuplets.

Braxton sprang most of the music on the players at the session, letting them develop it on the spot as they saw fit. They also followed his old practice of interpolating material from his earlier pieces, choosing from stuff composed in the late 80s/early 90s heyday of his classic quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, and Gerry Hemingway. There are clear parallels between that unit and this one, as little as pianist Kevin Uehlinger, bassist Keith Witty, and drummer Noam Schatz imitate their predecessors. Braxton's zigzag melodies, popping in and out of metronomic time, lend themselves to push-pull rhythmic development, alternately slowing and accelerating. These players, like those in the old quartet, are adept at devising thematic variations that foreground the ruggedly chiseled themes' even-notes-versus-tuplets motifs, singly or in spontaneously allied duos and trios. Witty's pliant pulse and sure bowing are especially valuable in these shifting coalitions. Their treatments of the themes are obsessive but not monotonous. The leader frequently switches horns, to effect a change of emphasis, but the other guys are too smart to take the bait in an obvious way--they'll lay back and then circle around to his point of view.

On "Composition 244," where Braxton rumbles around on baritone, bass, and contrabass saxes, Uehlinger plays a fair amount of melodica--a little mouth-blown keyboard he uses as a combination accordion and chromatic harmonica--and then throws in a bit of tinkling celesta. Elsewhere on "244" he tolls out piano harmonics as Schatz does a Swiss-bell-ringer bit, but the drummer's best moments come nine minutes into the tune, when he drops a hip-hop shuffle onto the tick-tock beat, reaffirming Braxton's place in the Afrological rhythmic continuum, and doing it with such finesse it never feels Dukakis-in-a-tank ludicrous. Each player is good at making casual allusions to march or swing time, nodding to chapters in Braxton's musical autobiography the way an Ives fiddle tune might tour that composer's past.

The new quartet brings back the old one's wondrous momentum, but with a difference. The 80s unit's continuous sets strung together or superimposed various pieces from its fat book, to make ever shifting suites whose parts vibrated against one another. The group's 45-minute recombinations were as multifarious as snowflakes, and they'd end far from where they'd started. In contrast the new band's 15- or 20-minute realizations of single themes (even allowing for the interpolations) keep returning to their departure points. You can get the feeling, listening to Braxton blow one horn after another, dropping out and then back in, that he's attacking a problem from many sides without necessarily getting anywhere. That may be an expression of his frustration, after he'd expressed great hopes for the millennium, with the way things were actually shaping up even before the 2000 election.

Braxton's porcupine melodies and improvisations are two sides of a coin: there's the same tripping against the beat, and the strict syncopations reminiscent of ragtime. Roscoe Mitchell also writes angular pieces that mirror his saxophone language, so that his improvisations flow organically from the compositions. (It worked for Charlie Parker.) But Mitchell's staccato barrages are lighter on the mathematical subdivisions than Braxton's, and his sound is less brawny and enthusiastic. On smaller horns especially, his tone can be scrawny and strangulated (and often quixotically out of tune). His excursions into Webern-like chamber textures can be more austere than Braxton's, yet there's something more opulent about his music too. He can write prettier, more conventional tunes. And with the right rhythm section, he'll allow himself physical pleasures Braxton won't or can't pull off.

The booty-shaking Mitchell scored big with 1980's luminous and newly reissued Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancing Shoes, recorded with his five-piece Sound Ensemble, a unit so suited to his needs he still leads it in one form or another, employing some or all of the original members. All the tunes are his except Braxton's march "40Q," reprised from their duet album, where his huff-and-puff bass sax pogos across the backfield.

The funky title track's skippy, spinning-top theme is played in pungent near unison by Mitchell (on alto) and trumpeter Hugh Ragin, who combines barnyard screeches and high-wire control. The Detroit rhythm section of bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal gives the funk grooves a greasy ease under the melody's sharp angles. The Detroiters also have a sure feel for Art Ensemble-style ritual-space atmospherics: on "CYP" they keep the thread of a pulse even through long rests.

In seven minutes or less, Mitchell can get some of the panoramic sweep of Braxton's old set-long suites. "Stomp and the Far East Blues" begins with the unrelenting thump of disco bass drum and R & B horn licks more straight than satirical, but then it plausibly devolves, somehow, into a Western-perspective picture of Indian music, with flute, tabla, and guitarist A. Spencer Barefield's 12-string-bending poor-man's-sitar routine.

The compressed "Sing/Song" covers even more ground. Here an unhurried flutey meander breaks into a fast, herky-jerk fanfare (everyone piling on every beat), then moves on to an Ornette-style anthem that launches a chicken-scratch alto solo and a free-jazz blowout, drums boiling over throughout. All of which proves to be a protracted setup for the triumphant, concluding floor-show theme--shades of Steve Lacy's 70s tune "Prospectus"--which ends one note too high, leaving you waiting for the big tonic chord that never arrives. Snurdy McGurdy is Mitchell at his best, balancing disparate elements like panels of a mobile, giving problematic material a context, while still finding room for catchy melodies that (like some of Lacy's) blossom from dowdy buds. When it comes to a song that tugs at the heart, even the great Braxton can't touch him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lauren Deutsch, Michael Jackson.

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