Throughout his six-decade career, one of the most distinctive character traits of musical and philosophical polymath Anthony Braxton has been his unpredictability. Early on he revealed that while firmly committed to the bleeding edges of avant-garde jazz as both composer and multi-instrumentalist, he loves the Second Viennese School of classical composers, boppers like Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano, melodic West Coast saxophone virtuosos including Warne Marsh and Paul Desmond, and free-form rock noisemakers such as Captain Beefheart and Wolf Eyes. That said, this four-disc box from Firehouse 12 should register surprise even from Braxton's fans and devotees. It features the saxophonist and composer alongside longtime collaborator cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline (whose improvisational and jazz chops are also well-documented), and Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier. Each of the four discs comprises a single improvised piece running about an hour and respectively dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown, and Merle Haggard.
The four met by chance while traveling their separate ways to a European music festival. Braxton and Ho Bynum heard Cline and Saunier play as a duo. They came up with a plan to improvise and record with the pair on the spot after returning to the States. Cut over two days at Connecticut's Firehouse 12 performance space, the instrumentalists execute these improvisations with the volume on stun (it's easily one of Braxton's loudest recordings). Cline's guitar is edgy like a dull razor; it pierces throughout (even when playing acoustic), while Saunier offers no quarter to "proper" jazz drumming; he hammers, flails, shuffles, and feints with unbridled energy and wide-open ears. "Improvisation One (for Jimi Hendrix)" is untamed, with Cline's blazing psych rock drones, jagged ostinatos, string bending, and scattered noise, as Braxton and Bynum dialogue with one another and Cline plays above Saunier's prattling tom-toms, woody rim shots, and thudding kick drums. The "now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't" quotes from the spiritual "Wade in the Water" and Hendrix's own "Third Stone from the Sun," and "Isabella" flit by in an instant, leaving sensory impressions on the evolving jam. The Joplin piece is reflective though not bluesy. Its use of conversational timbres, angular lyric lines, and rangy dynamics cast a momentarily shadowy and filmy glance at them before a new form of conversation occurs in tonal queries from the horn players. The third improv for Brown is not at all funky, but Cline and Braxton occasionally go head-to-head in syncopated improv throughout the last half of the work. The Haggard piece finds Braxton on contrabass sax. Cline's playing is alternately limpid and complex -- even nebulous -- as he comps in widening cycles with a tense, dark, alluring character in sharp, contrapuntal engagements with the horns. Saunier's drums find a shuffle for a few moments in his illustrative rolls, accents and slamming fills that dance like Milford Graves' freest drumming. Like most of Braxton's work, it isn't advisable to try to take Quartet (New Haven) 2014 at once. Each piece should be heard in its own separate listening session, as each respectively provides ample doses of playfulness, boundless imagination, poignant inquiry, and canny dialogue.