My Anthony Braxton Geek Week

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From Sunday March 22 through the 27th I geeked out pretty hard on Anthony Braxton.

It kicked off Sunday afternoon with a rehearsal of eleven of Braxton’s Graphic Pieces with some of the Research Triangle’s finest improvisers in preparation for our performance Thursday night in Durham.

My music stand during our rehearsal of some of Braxton's graphic scores.
My music stand during our rehearsal of some of Braxton’s graphic scores.

 

As can be imagined, there are quite a few different ways one can interpret Braxton’s graphic scores. Our two hour rehearsal was an exercise in democracy: brainstorming ideas on how to interpret the x and y axes, what the lines meant – and on other scores, the different possibilities of the dashed-line-circles and arrows allow for. It was a pretty interesting dynamic, as ideas were accepted, tweaked, or discarded. Some of the agreed upon approaches immediately worked, some didn’t work at all.

In a major faux pas I forgot my pencil, which was not good because there were a lot of notes to take. Luckily, I had my phone. Thus…

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At the end of the rehearsal I think we were all feeling pretty good about the game plan.

My Monday work day was filled with the sounds of one of my favorite Braxton albums:

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A phenomenal set recorded live at JazzFestival “Jazz Life” Dortmund on Halloween, 1976. Featuring George Lewis, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul.

 

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in anticipation of not only our performance Thursday night, but the public talk Braxton was giving with poet, novelist, and literary critic Nathaniel Mackey earlier that evening.

By Wednesday, however, it became clear that both events would be cancelled, as Durham got 5″ of wet heavy snow Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.

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The view out our living room. The snow was pretty, but it sure did come at the wrong time.

 

We, along with tens of thousands of others, lost power for all day Thursday. Being in the South, Durham does not have the infrastructure, equipment, or resources to deal with anything more than a light dusting of snow. The Braxton/Mackey talk was cancelled, as was our concert. The chance that Braxton or members of his band might have stopped by our concert made the cancellation sting that much more. That night was spent much differently than anticipated, as my wife and I found one of the few restaurants open – a BBQ joint with a singer who was delivering the greatest hits of the 30s and40s, along with some pretty far out banter. Luckily, she had a nice voice, and the BBQ was good.

I was worried Friday night’s concert would be cancelled, as Braxton and the band were driving up from Tuscaloosa Thursday. But, they made it, and it went on as scheduled.

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I had damn good seats. Six rows back.

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I would have loved to been able to get a picture or two during the show, but when the artists request not to have photos taken during the show, I’m not gonna be “that guy.”

 

Joining Braxton for the hour-long set were saxophonists Andrew Raffo Dewar and Ingrid Laubrock, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum. For a cold, snowy Friday night, there was a pretty good crowd. There were, however, a bunch of the high-art, country club set who I could tell were there because they were either season ticket holders or were there for the cachet that comes with appreciating the work of a MacArthur Genius and NEA Jazz Master, or both. Turned out I was right. The man on my right slept through most of it, and the woman on my left felt the whole thing was ridiculous. Luckily the overwhelming majority of the audience were enthusiastic.

It was hands-down the best avant-garde performance I had ever been a part of. Braxton switched between alto, soprano, and sopranino. He also occasionally turned to the mixer hooked up to his laptop to control the Super Collider software that reacted to the musicians in real time. The music flowed so naturally, with Braxton giving exaggerated cues at various times. The combinations of instruments flowed as easily as the music: duos became trios became solos became quintets. Halvorson and Bynum; Bynum Braxton and Laubrock; Laubrock and Braxton; and so on; three sopranos and guitar; electronics and trumpet; and so on and so on. One of the most stimulating moments was the brief duo between Bynum and Braxton on sopranino – turning, twisting, embroiled highwire lines dancy through the concert all; as it continued one could hear more and more people gasp with delight and astonishment.

After an hour or so (it didn’t feel half that long) the composition ended quite abruptly, with Braxton introducing the members of the band in rapid fire as soon as the last note was over. The standing ovation was nearly instantaneous. And I will never forget Braxton’s response to the crowd’s appreciation: with a massive smile, a few repeated hops, a few pumps of the arm, and one or two audible “yeahs!”, he acted as if it was the first time he had ever played the horn. Pure joy.

And of course I had to hit the merch table.

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While the week did not turn out quite as planned, it was still one of the musical highlights I’ve had in many many years. I can now cross seeing Braxton off of my bucket list, and I hope I am fortunate enough to be able to see him again. And just maybe we will be able to reschedule our gig…..

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