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Listening Post: An immense gesture by Anthony Braxton and the ‘Born to Be Blue’ soundtrack

Avant-Garde Jazz

Anthony Braxton, “3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011” (Firehouse 12 Records, three discs); Quintet (Tristano) 2014 (Firehouse 12 Records, Seven Discs); “Trillium J (The Unconfessionables) (FIrehouse 12 Records, 4 discs plus Blue-Ray disc). The most stunning solo saxophone concert I have ever heard by far – or ever expect to hear – was by avant-garde jazz alto saxophonist Anthony Braxton decades ago at Buffalo State College. Since then, Braxton, 70, has eschewed his alto saxophone increasingly to concentrate more on his huge ambitions as a composer and a kind of all-encompassing Stockhausenesque thinker and visionary. While the results have been far less convincing than his astonishing virtuosity as an instrumentalist, they result in this, which is the most stunning gesture to come out of the jazz vanguard on disc in years.

In it you’ll hear how many light years Braxton has traveled. What he’s done in one, mind-bendingly expansive swoop here, is to release three huge multi-disc sets of different aspects of his music in the 21st century – a 2009 opera called “Trillium J: The Unconfessionables” on four discs, a seven-disc quintet collection of compositions by Lennie Tristano on which he plays piano and a three-disc box of “3 Compositions” subtitled EEMHM which is his abbreviation for Echo Echo Mirror House Music. While Braxton’s distance from the instrumental point of his original entry into jazz’ most venturesome ranks seems so large as to make him unpalatable to so many, the music for what he calls a “friendly experiencer” on, especially, “Three Compositions” is often a gloriously articulated continual contrapuntal chaos. It incorporates past Braxton music, present Braxton music and what he calls “summation music from the total event” for what he labels a “Tri-Centric Aesthetic.”

What’s going on in “3 Compositions” is music by a seven-piece band including Braxton on saxophones playing his music with musicians also equipped with iPods to supplement live performance with recorded sounds from Braxton’s compositional past. It is far and away the best of these mammoth chunks of Braxton music.

His seven-disc tribute to Lennie Tristano is fascinating but there’s no question that he can’t make up for the aesthetic distance between his piano playing and Tristano’s nor his band’s players and Tristano’s men Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. This, of course, is their Braxton version of Tristano’s music but it sounds a lot less like an updating of it than a smudged and awkward 21st century version of it.

On the other hand, Kevin Whitehead’s notes for the Tristano box are the simplest and most readable of this giant Braxton outlay. His opera “Trillium” is dedicated to Sun Ra and again doesn’t include Braxton on saxophones. In Braxton’s opera, Act One “takes place right after the civil war” even though, says Braxton, it’s OK that one character quotes President Eisenhower. It’s “Trans-Temporal” you see. It seems the least well-realized of all this Braxton music. What has to be said, though, is how incredible it is to have the vision of a jazz avant-gardist who would like, in some future performance, “the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders” make an appearance “in one of the spaces of a Trillium opera.” Braxton is a unique figure and this gesture on behalf of his own music is both eminently Braxtonian and at the same time altogether amazing.

One suggestion: he knows that, as he says, “I’m not going to make any money from my music” but it would help immensely in the future if everything he performs, live or on record, came with an experienced Braxton translator and explicator capable of guiding “friendly experiencers” through the composer’s self-consciously impenetrable thinking and self-invented jargon. Ratings: Three stars for “3 Compositions” and two and a half stars for “Trillium” and “Tristano.” (Jeff Simon)

Soundtrack

“Born to Be Blue” performed by Ethan Hawke and David Braid Quartet featuring trumpet player Kevin Turcotte (Rhino) How amazing it is for those who love both jazz and movies to be alive in a year where the two most famous trumpet apostles of cool jazz are being presented to us at the movies. Miles Davis, the genius whose LP “Birth of the Cool” invented the jazz style, will arrive before April is out in the form of Don Cheadle, whose film “Miles Ahead” is mostly about the ’70s period when Miles withdrew from performance anywhere to remain in his apartment with his drugs.

Within weeks, we will probably see Ethan Hawke playing Chet Baker, who was neither as original nor as great a musician as Miles or as handsome but who, like Miles, had camera-ready cheekbones and, unlike Miles, had the ’50s advantage of being white. On top of it all, Baker liked to sing too, in his small, high, sensitive voice, much to the joy of his fans (especially the female ones). Baker’s onetime partner Gerry Mulligan was a truly great jazz musician but Baker, for extra-musical reasons, will always be the jazz legend. What is evident in the soundtrack of Robert Budreau’s film about Baker is that Ethan Hawke simulates Baker’s singing affectingly, if not exactly, and Canadian trumpet player Kevin Turcotte agreeably simulates Baker’s playing, albeit with too much virtuosity and too little melodic purity.

Nevertheless, this music from the soundtrack – where no authentic Baker is heard – is very listenable on its own, especially because it includes a couple of authentic classics from Baker’s greatest era, Charles Mingus’ extraordinary “Haitian Fight Song” and Odetta’s “Go Down Sunshine.” Three stars. (Jeff Simon)

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