This mammoth document of the final year of the famous Anthony Braxton Quartet shows exactly why that group finally split: They had reached a creative apex as a group that -- arguably -- could not be furthered. The music on this collection features two live CDs and two studio CDs, and gives a completely different picture of the same band who recorded for Black Saint on the Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984 record.
The concert reveals the quartet able to execute any notion from Braxton's theoretical yet soulful music, almost instinctually. As the compositions get stacked up, such as "No. 67+147+96," it means that some element of each of those compositions enters into the playing of this piece, whether it be in Marilyn Crispell's piano solo or line, Mark Dresser's bassline or changes, or a particular shift in rhythm from drummer Gerry Hemingway. The empathy of the players saturates Braxton's music, and he appears, giant that he is, not so much as a soloist on his many saxophones and clarinets, but as another player in a band that spoke with multi-lingual possibilities, but with one voice. The interplay between Braxton and Crispell has reached a point in their relationship where, technically speaking, he is well aware that she is his equal as a technician of the sacred that is sound. His solos on "No. 34A," "No. 23G (+147+30)," and "107B (+96)" are evidence. Crispell's momentum to strike at the space inside the group improvisation is also to turn it ever inward to focus on how these micro and polytonal shifts, when combined with the overdriven yet ultimately sympathetic washes of percussion from Hemingway and Dresser's constant pulse as it sifts through changes, are, in effect, realizing the chameleon-like place of harmony better than Braxton himself could ever articulate. This group is all lightning and fire; there is no hesitation, nor is there any room for it. They challenge each other and their leader to the breaking point, and somehow ride the wave into yet another new territory, where the process begins again. The studio discs in this collection show another side of the band. Here, dynamic and harmonic possibility are the concern of Braxton -- each note is played, at least in the opening lines, and is carefully nuanced as if it were finding its own place in space. There is a freedom for the composer to seek out color and dexterity, texture and surface, as the band is all about making it anyway. They know what's needed in a composition such as "No. 160 (+5) 40J," where Crispell adds a piano solo that quotes the harmonic structure of "No. 5," and, along with Dresser, flows through his gorgeous bowed cello solo from "No. 40J" through the middle section, where Braxton and Crispell bring the proceedings back. In each new Braxton composition, the players are welcome to quote from earlier material in the catalog, find the interval it best fits, and explore it in this new context, thereby making a rich intertextuality whereby the current composition is extended dynamically and musically. Also on this studio session, which was recorded over two days, Braxton himself is looser, picking compositions that seldom are touched live in order to be finessed in the studio -- usually it's the other way around, but his exploration of shape, polytonality, and rhythmic architecture is relentless. Listen to "No. 67" (dedicated to the actress Bette Davis) to hear one of Braxton's "sound environment spirals." Here, material -- created by all four members of the quartet and variants thereof -- explore repetition as a "physical" material and a vibrational factor in the creation of further sonorous material. First they play repeated phrases until near exhaustion sets in (Philip Glass has nothing on this band), and then are offered numerous options for changing tempo and shape (Hemingway has a real party with this, trying to dodge his bandmates, but never quite succeeding). The result? What does it mean? Simple: No person can play the same phrase over and over and the same way without that eventual variation. Eventually, variation becomes the sole M.O., and each player drifts further apart from the rest until they become unstuck completely. Once in free space, the swirling flutes, cascading piano lines, and dense thick intervallic chords humming bass harmonics, as well as flutes, call the entire thing further out on a star until Braxton re-enters with the alto to call the exploration to order. He locks horns with Crispell, and then launches into "No. 140 (+147+139+135)." And so it goes. Braxton's quartet was easily the most creative band he played with, and his longest running. Since that time, in duet and solo performance, he has found the fire he needs to continue exploring the musical ground his mind conjures up on composition paper. But he has been lost in band settings. Since 1994 he has not found a group that has, member for member, this much musical talent or empathetic dexterity. With this band, he never had to assert himself as a leader because they could instinctively follow his cues. Since that time, he has had to assert himself more and more. And while the music he's writing has every bit of the wonder, awe, and irritation of his earlier work, it has never been played with this virtuosity. This set is a worthy companion to the Leo Records "Coventry Concerts" series. What a swan song.