When multi-reedist and composer Anthony Braxton got the phone call last year telling him he’d been named an NEA Jazz Master, he thought there’d been some mistake. Over 20 years ago, jazz conservatives made him the poster boy for everything they hated. His arcane structures and gasping wide-leaping solos made it plain that swinging was not his top priority. His many albums of standards just angered them more. He was declared not a jazz musician — this guy who admitted the influence of modern classical musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Braxton responded as Duke Ellington had, when accused of breaching generic boundaries: Then don’t call it jazz, but leave me alone to make my own music. Which he has done, documenting hundreds of works for solo saxophone, jazz quartets, classical pianists, multiple orchestras and many more combinations, on a gazillion labels large and small, his own Braxton House included. He also continued to play jazz clubs and stages (on saxes ranging from squeaky sopranino to the ridiculously large and low contrabass model), and recorded the music of Charlie Parker, Monk and Andrew Hill.
By now, the ’90s jazz wars are long over, and a more liberal view of jazz parameters prevails. The moment was right to bring Braxton back home. By the time of the induction ceremony in January — the other 2014 Jazz Masters being Keith Jarrett, bassist Richard Davis and educator Jamey Aebersold — Braxton had warmed to the idea. He spoke of the honor as a “reconcilement” in the course of an impromptu 25-minute ramble, in which he name-checked personal heroes Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck and Cecil Taylor, doo-wop singer Frankie Lymon, cowboy harmonists Sons of the Pioneers, and the University of Michigan halftime band.
When I spoke to him a few months later, he was quick to explain the importance of citing such a diverse list of inspirations. “You have to be honest about who you are, and the men and women who’ve influenced you,” he said. “Part of learning from someone is to acknowledge it, so that people can see that something comes from something. Nothing just pops out separate from history, or from the work that preceded it.”
Then the new Jazz Master went back to prepping his latest in a series of not-so-jazzy Braxton mini-fests at Brooklyn new music hub Roulette. Two three-night weekends in April, starting on the 10th, will culminate in the premiere of his opera Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables), which involves 12 singers, 12 featured instrumentalists and an oversize orchestra.
Another reason for Braxton to celebrate: In December, after 28 years teaching, he retired from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, where his students included such contemporary notables as Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Steve Lehman and many more.
“One reason I retired from academia is [that] I’m a year and a couple of months from being 70. I’m very far behind in my own work, and would like to have my senior period in life directed toward composing: research and development of my own work.”
Now he has more time for his Tri-Centric Foundation, aimed at promoting his own music and that of likeminded unclassifiables. “So you won’t have to be 60 years old before you can get a performance of an orchestra piece. That’s what the Foundation is really about: looking for ways to bring resources to musicians and composers who are trying to evolve their work, but who are blocked from established facilities — because they’re considered not-classical, or not from the right ethnic group or class or whatever.” The Roulette series will also feature sets of new music by saxophonist James Fei (another former student), trumpeter Nate Wooley and singer Fay Victor.
Braxton’s top priority is finishing his Trillium cycle of operas, which are at heart philosophical dialogues derived from his 1980s Tri-Axium Writings. His prose, like his speech, mixes folksy colloquialisms with a sort of homemade academic jargon, in which the shapes of musical lines are classified under “sonic geometrics.” It all sounds very somber, but he laughs readily in conversation. He has the sandy voice of a veteran lecturer.
Of the operas, he says, “In the last 20 years I have found myself very attracted to and influenced and inspired by composers like Richard Wagner.” Makes sense: Wagner’s mammoth Ring cycle provided that total artistic experience Braxton craves — music, myth, drama and spectacle merging to inspire awe. “The difference being, I’ve tried to fashion my model more on the I Ching rather than, say, organized religion. The I Ching was important to me, because it didn’t tell you what to do, it only gave a parable or story, and you would extract from that what the meaning of it is. Each individual, each friendly experiencer, would extract something consistent with their own experience.” So the operas have a lighter side too — the Socratics can play out like goofy science fiction.
The love of spectacle ties in with his NEA shoutout to the University of Michigan. “I’ve found the great college marching band tradition to be, in many ways, much more creative than the jazz tradition of the last 20 or 25 years. Jazz kind of stalled because of conservative antebellum pressures.” (There is much he has missed in the interim, but let it pass.)
Braxton’s Sousa march gone wrong, opus 58 from 1976, may be his most notorious piece. He loves parades as communal rituals that bring people together. He’s written of skipping grammar school in Chicago to attend one, and spotting an adult he knew who’d skipped work for the same reason: his father. “I was at Wesleyan 23 years, and I was the only guy from senior music faculty who was on the Wesleyan Pep Band.” (He even recorded the college fight song.)
“In the last 30 years, college football bands have evolved all kinds of movement strategies, and my own systems include a movement system,” Braxton says. “So it seems especially relevant for me in this time period to study marching bands as a way to understand fresh strategies for the new area spaces that I’m trying to design.” Area spaces being venues, from small rooms to stadiums to virtual global stages.
Thinking big has never been a problem. He once set himself a schedule for writing compositions for multiple orchestras to be staged on impossibly grand scales—a piece for three planets was due by 1988, for five planets by 1990, for separate solar systems by 1995, and separate galaxies by the year 2000. But none of them got written, because he had to start teaching to support his family. His visionary projects now are more doable: like, a concert for 12 players that starts in, say, New York and ends in Los Angeles 12 days later. In between, the 12tet breaks into smaller units that play sub-concerts as they cross the country by various routes — a kind of musical map of interstate highways. Beyond that, he envisions 12 of his operas performed at once in different cities around the globe, with live hookups among them. “Or later they might be performed with holographic technology, so the friendly experiencer would not simply be watching the music on stage, but experiencing it as part of a three-dimensional post-Walt Disney, post-Wagner, post-Sun Ra fantasy environment.”
Don’t laugh, as this futurist has been right before: He anticipated the internet-era crush of information in the mid ’80s, when several compositions played simultaneously became a regular feature of his music — think of it as music with multiple browser tabs open. His primary vehicle was his classic 1986-94 quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway, a band that might play four different compositions at the same time and make them all fit together, a whirling molecule. They’d also improvise their way out of one piece and into another — the variation giving rise to a theme. (A good example of their art is the live (Victoriaville) 1992 on Victo.)
“The essential characteristic of the model I’m trying to build involves everything happening at the same time. All the compositions can be played together,” Braxton says. His improvised and composed music is full of such layering and intrusions — in a way not so different from Dexter Gordon quoting 10 tunes in a single solo. Braxton has always said any piece can be adapted to any instrumentation. “None of the compositions have fixed tempos — all tempos are relative in my systems,” he says. “The compositions can be put together in different orders: They’re a giant erector set that can be used in different kinds of ways, to suit the needs of the creative improviser or composer.”
The next-gen virtual-reality edition is Braxton’s Echo Echo Mirror House music, where the musicians, besides playing the set list on their usual instruments, also man iPods containing much of Braxton’s recorded catalog going back decades, pre-existing performances to be sliced in at will.
“We’re playing, and at the same time, because of the new technology, we can put on recordings from the past, mix it all up together, and you have a formal state that celebrates the real-time moment, interacting with moments from the past, to produce a composite that looks toward the future,” he says.
Structurally intricate as his music can be, Braxton has never lost faith in improvisation as a way to keep the music fresh and in the moment. That intuitive side will be represented at Roulette by a performance of his Falling River Music, where the musicians (nine, in this case, including Halvorson and Ho Bynum) read, respond to, and improvise from abstract visual images, entering a different kind of mental area space: “I had come to a point where I was building structures I thought were interesting, but more and more I found myself thinking, I need to find something else here,” he says.
“I’ve tried to advise my students who are interested in this way of modeling, don’t lean toward too much precision or too much freedom. Part of what excited me about Stockhausen was his incredible exact methodology. The Falling River Music was just the opposite, a way to get away from that — to allow more of the unknown to come into the music.”