The current picture of the world of improvisation shows multitudes of different perspectives, several stimulating currents, an abundant batch of cardsharpers in the foreground and those who inevitably get classified among the holy cows, although not always due to effective artistic merits. Yet Anthony Braxton – either a name that puts in awe due to his mercurial mind and forward-looking musical thought, or a “too difficult” musician to be “avoided at any cost” – manages to escape expectations, except one: everything he does unloads in fact a burden of consequence on the audience’s shoulders, like it (aesthetically) or not. This can’t possibly be denied, if not by utter ignorance.
When Braxton decided to publish the entire session that he and guitarist Joe Morris recorded on July 30 and 31st in the Crowell Auditorium of the Wesleyan University, both artists were positively conscious of the historic importance of this issue. The saxophonist has expressed a wish for utilizing this music “as a way of talking about composition in time and mutable space” to his students in the future. That says a lot of this duo’s character, its main feature evidently being a stunning stability, a blend of liberated opinion and structured development of concepts that the discerning listener can unmistakably compare to fresh water springing from under a mountain rock bottled in beautiful crystal profiles. This is purity of intents, also known as “creativity at the uppermost level”, allowing unpredictable events to be instantly digested, reshaped and exposed without the gloss of a formula, or the ennui born from typical “jazz progressions”.
Morris himself ranks among the guitarists – let’s just say “players”, mental and corporeal boundaries extending well over the sheer mechanics of the six strings – destined to puzzle many addressees, principally those used to standard reckoning (pun intended). In those hands the instrument becomes the proverbial means to an end, not necessarily a method to portray virtuosity (which, in this context, would be all the more futile despite the obviously superior technical expertise of the participants). There are parts of the improvisations in which we seem to hear Braxton’s now graceful, then raucous flurries accompanied by African mbira patterns rather than guitar arpeggios; elsewhere, clustered chords and scarcely malleable phrases are bound to the sense of frustration that a number of non-sympathetic listeners will surely experience (“What’s that? No diminished 7th? Where’s the augmented 5th?”). The man, supposedly, doesn’t care a iota. No need to refurbish chops and licks when all’s needed is chainless imagination and a correct brain architecture.
The reciprocal respect between the principals is palpable, regardless of a noticeable dissimilarity: Braxton utilizes seven saxophones (for the archivists: Eb sopranino, Bb soprano, alto, C melody, baritone, bass and contrabass) versus Morris’ solitary axe. The former’s insightful cleverness and, for want of a better word, culture is manifestly perceptible from the manner in which he wraps, cuddles and caresses the latter’s lexicon, the existent difference in terms of dynamics notwithstanding; a bass sax is enough to make a living room’s silverware jingle quite a bit, you know. But this is not a one-way transaction of course: both suggest and listen to the echoing modification of their very proposition, mutual skill and responsiveness intertwined in a prolonged conversation whose fecundity is treasured from the first note to the last. Four hours streaming without problems, many highlights to relish all over the four discs: as a hypothetical symbol, the quiet dialogue starting around minute 15 of the second could be perfect. “Lyrically inquisitive” is probably an appropriate description. Don’t think for a minute that it’s all flowers, though: when the going gets tough, roses morph into corrosive thistles. Still gorgeous, acutely stinging, ever treacherous for the uninformed, ballad-only “late-coming aficionado”.
Maybe the most pertinent observation – especially when thinking of personal communication being at an all-time low nowadays, in the face of myriads of instruments helpful to the contrary – came from my wife, who synthesized the whole with the following words: “these guys are definitely talking”. Indeed they are, yet detecting the substance of what’s being expressed falls exclusively on us.