Here is the Braxton Quartet, a band who will live in the annals of avant-jazz history forever at the very end of their tenure together. The playing here over these two CDs reveals just how easy that made it look, and how deceptively hard it was to move through Anthony Braxton's compositions and maintain -- and in the case of these players -- or establish oneself as a soloist in her or his own right. There's Braxton on the woodwinds, Marilyn Crispell on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, and the irrepressible Gerry Hemingway on drums. The material chosen for this gig is interesting in that the first half of the first set (and disc) is from the 23M-48 series, all of which are somber, introspective works that dwell on intermodulations of tonality against the presence of line. They serve well as an introduction to the dark flowers of the 140-160 series, which comes almost directly after with the exception of a stunning piece of Braxtonian minimalism known as "Composition Number 66," to which was added the center of "135." These latter works are brooding in places, yet always full of lilting melodies and folksy jaunts from mode and interval to music that seems out of time and space, yet keeps its roots in earth history. Ms. Crispell's colorific playing on the first set is nothing short of stunning in the way she parcels out the territory for each of the other musicians to work from. On disc two, the quartet moves through a variety of series from the 20s to 171, combining sections of many others and working them into the weave. This is the other side of the band, the playful side that engages the listener on a more visceral level while the band attempts to have fun with the material and each other. Braxton displays warm humor toward Dresser on "23c" when he angles his clarinet, quotes in harmonic capitulation Dresser's entire fill, and then turns it back on him for a solo. Then there's Crispell quoting from Disney on "171" and Hemingway working a waltz time into the fury of "105b" as an intervallic device to bring the band back in. In all, this double-disc set shows how wide-ranging the Braxton Quartet could be, and how these stellar musicians transformed avant-garde ensemble playing in America, if not the world over.
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