Anthony Braxton’s never been cool, but has always seemed mighty weird. There’s the pipe-smoking, sweater-swaddled egghead persona, a nutty professor dispensing super-cerebral, impenetrably systematic post-Ornette/Stockhausen compositions with all but unreproducible algebraic-schematic diagrams for titles—convoluted musical equations that softly scream for a big blackboard and a bucketful of chalk. (Try calling out their catchy abbreviations as encore requests: “Composition No. 69J [+30+108D]”!!!) Then there’s his arsenal of peculiar, unwieldy, and flat-out obsolete reeds (Braxton’s business card must say, “Have contrabass sax, will travel”). But even when he plays the conventional instrument he made his name on back with 1968’s daunting two-record solo recital, For Alto, he manages to make it sound like some archaic, stiff-gaited, Ceci-n’est-pas-une-horn hybrid: a C-melody saxophone outfitted with a “Dodo Bird Lives” mouthpiece. Bundle all the erudite quirks, quixotic postures, and math-freak idiosyncrasies together and you’ve got a guy who could have taught music appreciation to the autistic, led the Frankfurt School’s marching band, or played sopranino clarinet in Jelly Roll Messiaen’s Red Hot Quartet for the End of Time.
So who is Braxton supposed to be—the Einstein of theoretical jazz physics, or the Rube Goldberg of hopelessly impractical, slavishly eccentric follies? Both, actually: The two sides of his deadpan brainiac sensibility counterbalance each other nicely, the heavy ivory-tower intellectualism humanized by an affectionate, impulsive streak of try-anything amateurism. Thus the buildup of methodical tension which he manages to release into some of the most curiously playful improvisations this side of a Thelonious Monk-Pee Wee Russell conference call. Incorporating rude, bracing noises that are both funny-ha-ha and funny-uncanny, his solos line up rows of crooked notes that jerk forward like a sand crab being poked with a sharp stick, stuttering eloquently through a tune’s back door and/or left field. (Chord changes? Mr. Braxton has a nonexclusive relationship with any he happens to become entangled with.)
Fans of diligent, irreverent revisions could bypass this thornily conceptualist composer of “ghost trance music” just about entirely and get plenty of satisfaction from his forays into the many-splintered tradition. Only a humorless purist could resist the giddy hiccups of Six Monk‘s (sic) Compositions (1987) (Mal Waldron on piano and “Brilliant Corners” setting the table), the interlocking tight-formation spazzle-dazzle of Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989 (frenetic tempos, unexpected turns, beautifully mindful give-and-take), or the live/studio one-two punch of Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project 1993: The latter made old bebop warhorses sound fresh and unpredictably volatile again, with 20 minutes’ worth of “An Oscar for Treadwell” getting down and dirty to signify the oneness of r&b’s honk with the transcendental blurt of the avant-garde.
For those craving a good, undiluted dose of Braxton’s own medicine, his current Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 will hardly disappoint: four CDs of field recordings from a squiggly alternate universe. The compositions are dedicated to the likes of Max Roach, Harry Partch, and Don van Vliet. As gene-pool cross-fertilizations, not a bad way of contextualizing the guy’s work: Roach’s link to the breadth of jazz history (and with whom Braxton has had a couple definitive recorded encounters), Partch with his self-made kitchen-sink musical language, and the ever-so-idiomatic American individualism of Vliet-Beefheart. (More tangibly, Braxton’s interminable tick-tock unison horn passages recall Frank Zappa’s half-parodic experimental side—what’s next, GTO music?) As far as the ghost-trance part goes, to the untrained ear Braxton’s new music doesn’t sound much different from his atonal tone-poem efforts dating from the ’70s, though it’s gotten less jazzy and, unexpectedly, less modern-sounding.
It has a pointillistic, poltergeist-laden busyness, yet harking back to embryonic times before either bop or structuralism was born. On the slithery, meandering Roach tribute, which consumes half the album, the loose-knit 10-piece ensemble’s sonorities radiate a charmingly antiquated quality, a whiff of Threepenny Operas and Cotton Clubs hanging in the rarefied air. But the deliberate, repetitively instrumental motions have the slapstick physicality of early film comedy and primitive animation: Chaplin/Rene Clair assembly lines running in circles, stick-figured mice giggling at the switches, knockabout gags presented in pared-down, abstract form. Everything is texture, bustle, plaintive anonymity: a decrepit, self-perpetuating lullaby for the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that keeps going and going like a bunch of nearsighted Energizer bunnies in bumptious search of the lost chord.
A few years back, Braxton put aside his horns for a little while and took up the piano, attacking jazz standards with a fearless thonk, plunk, splat. What he lacked in technique he could hardly make up with reckless enthusiasm alone, but it was fun to see someone so willing to risk a flying leap and take a pratfall with a semblance of dignity and grace. Maybe it’s my imagination, but as he’s settled into a comfortable middle-aged spread, I swear Braxton’s starting to look like a blacker-and-tanner cross between Laurel and Hardy. His new material pales a bit beside the crackling energy of his youthful performances (cf. the Dortmund and Basel concerts Hat Art has recently made available on CD), but the slogan is the same as ever: “Here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten us into.”