Avant-Garde Legend Anthony Braxton on His ‘Trans-Idiomatic’ Improv Odyssey

Near the end of a recent conversation with Rolling Stone, in which he emphasized time and again that his musical tastes aren’t confined to any one style, eminent avant-gardist Anthony Braxton illustrated his point by sharing a nickname he’s earned from those close to him.

“My friends call me Anthony ‘Beefheart Boy’ Braxton!” he says cheerfully.

“He was totally creative,” Braxton says of the late Captain Beefheart. “His compositions were outrageously beautiful and original. His ensemble was really special. Some people talk of Captain Beefheart as a far-out rock musician, but when I think of Beethoven, Duke Ellington, [saxophonist] Paul Desmond and Frankie Lymon, I can easily put Captain Beefheart in with my heroes and heroines.”

At the moment, those heroes and heroines, drawn from a broad assortment of genres, are especially present in the mind of the 74-year-old composer and multi-woodwind master, who has spent the past half-century synthesizing the full spectrums of jazz, classical and beyond into a vast and complex multimedia universe that at this point can only really be classified as Braxtonia. He’s speaking to Rolling Stone from his home in Connecticut, reflecting on Quartet (New Haven) 2014, a new four-CD box set that brings him into dialogue with the vanguard of modern rock. In addition to brass virtuoso Taylor Ho Bynum, an ever-imaginative bandleader and a key Braxton collaborator for more than 20 years, the record features Wilco guitarist and avant-jazz explorer Nels Cline as well as Greg Saunier, the co-founder and brilliantly idiosyncratic drummer of Deerhoof.

Out June 21st, the release consists of four roughly hour-long improvisations, each taking up a full disc. The pieces touch on a rich array of textures and moods, with Braxton moving among six different saxophones, from the tiny sopranino to the gigantic contrabass, as the inspiration hits. “Improvisation Three,” for example, contrasts wild electrified free jazz — with Cline emitting laser-gun tones, Saunier adding tumbling rolls and Braxton playing scampering phrases on the sopranino — with barely audible abstraction, as Bynum’s faint, otherworldly brass wisps mingle with the guitarist’s gentle swells, Braxton’s hushed alto lines and the drummer’s fluttering brushwork.

As heard in this excerpt from “Improvisation Two,” the group’s interplay is highly attuned yet palpably playful — the sound of four world-class players relishing the chance to step away from their typical musical zones and forge a new shared language.

The dedications that Braxton includes with the album exemplify the same spirit of cross-genre exchange. He’s never been shy about naming diverse influences, from jazz icon John Coltrane to classical trailblazer Arnold Schoenberg and the aforementioned doo-wop hitmaker Lymon, but he sends out Quartet (New Haven) 2014′s respective tracks to four figures that even longtime Braxton fans might not associate with him: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Merle Haggard, respectively. The pieces aren’t any kind of covers or explicit tributes; for Braxton, his homages are more like shout-outs from a longtime fan.

“The dedications for my compositions are a clumsy attempt to say ‘Hooray for [these] men and women,’” he says. “I sit on the shoulders of the men and women who have worked so hard to advance us to this point.”

The roots of Quartet (New Haven) 2014 date back to August 2013, when all four musicians were booked at Switzerland’s Jazz Festival Willisau, playing with various projects. Braxton had already known Cline for years through avant-garde music circles, and he and Bynum decided to attend the guitarist’s duo performance at the fest with Saunier, an improv show that, Braxton says, “was so awesome, I almost had a heart attack.”

The gig planted a seed and Braxton, who relishes the chance to work in ad hoc situations outside his own ensembles — case in point: a 2005 appearance with Michigan noise collective Wolf Eyes — started strategizing about a quartet session. Originally, the plan was to work with some of Braxton’s composed material, but when the musicians came together the following June at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 studio, Braxton decided that a spontaneous approach made more sense.

“I found myself feeling for our first opportunity to play music together, I wanted to pick up right after the magical concert that Nels and Greg played in Willisau, which was a concert of improvisation on the highest level.”

Cline has been a Braxton fan for decades and remembers first meeting him in the mid-Seventies when an earlier quartet of Braxton’s performed in Southern California. He says that despite his reverence for Braxton, he felt instantly at ease when he got to Connecticut for the recording of Quartet (New Haven) 2014, which came right on the heels of a collaboration with another legendary figure, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York.

“It was a Sunday evening and we all adjourned to [Braxton’s] favorite restaurant, Red Lobster, and actually had a delightful dinner there, and then recorded for two days,” the guitarist tells RS. “Braxton brought in the heavy artillery — he brought the contrabass saxophone. And he had these graphic scores that seemed to be rather meticulously created, but then he said to basically ignore them, and we improvised.

“Braxton just puts everybody at ease, because he’s very amusing and he’s very personable,” Cline continues. “So once we started playing … it could’ve been just about anybody as far as the vibe; it just felt very connected. But it sounds like nobody else, ’cause it’s Braxton. … In that sense, it’s very exciting. But I couldn’t let that distract me; I just had to use it as sound input and somebody’s soul coming through their instrument and just do my best. The fact that he puts everybody so at ease is very significant.”

That latter description of Braxton could also apply to the experience of conversing with him. Braxton spent more than 20 years teaching music at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, and he still speaks with a kind of declamatory formality — you can almost envision him pointing his finger skyward to emphasize each phrase — peppering his answers with pet phrases like “time space,” “rhythmic logics” and “cosmic forces.” But he matches that buttoned-up demeanor with disarming friendliness and giddy enthusiasm. Even now, five years after the sessions that produced the album, Braxton still sounds thrilled by what the four musicians accomplished during their first meeting.

“It goes to show in my opinion that many of the idiomatic definitions that have brought us into this time space have more and more become irrelevant because musicians like Greg, who are viewed as percussionists in rock music — in fact, this guy could play with the New York Philharmonic, and this is also true of Nels,” he says, his voice swelling with excitement. “And so in having the opportunity to play with these guys, I found myself in an environment of trans-idiomatic creativity, and it was one of the best things that could happen to me in this time period.”

Even on his breakthrough LP, For Alto — a bracing and highly influential album of solo saxophone pieces recorded 50 years ago this past February — Braxton was already working in a space beyond category. That album’s dedications, naming everyone from jazz piano radical Cecil Taylor to iconoclastic composer John Cage, drove home the point. In the half-century since, whether paying tribute to Charlie Parker; composing elaborate, outlandish operas; writing pieces for ensembles made up of 100 tubas, four orchestras or 12 vocalists; or launching entirely new musical systems, each with its own specialized logic, he’s always resisted any kind of easy pigeonholing.

That staunch open-mindedness hasn’t always made him popular. In 1985’s Forces in Motion, an essential portrait of his life and work by the journalist Graham Lock, Braxton explains how even among his peers in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — an African American artists collective founded on Chicago’s South Side that also gave rise to avant-garde masters such as Pulitzer finalist Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell, the Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder who will join Braxton as an NEA Jazz Master next year — he felt like an outsider.

“[M]y work and Leo’s would be viewed as not as ‘black’ as some of the musics that were reaching into Africa,” he tells Lock in Forces. “It was in this period that controversy began to ensnarl me, even in the AACM; because I was not interested only in Africa, I was interested in Africa and in Europe and in Asia.”

That controversy extended to Braxton’s critical reception, which has often focused as much on his trademark fashion choices (a 2002 Village Voice essay cited his “pipe-smoking, sweater-swaddled egghead persona”) or his sui generis composition titles (which often take the form of arcane letter-and-number sequences bundled with intricate illustrated diagrams) as much as his music. It was the rare writer who understood that if a given Braxton work didn’t exemplify conventional jazz values, it’s probably because that wasn’t remotely the intent.

In Quartet (New Haven) 2014 dedicatee Jimi Hendrix, then, Braxton recognizes a kindred spirit: a musician who never let genre-based constraints box him in.

“I’ve been a Hendrix fan from the beginning,” Braxton says. “And later I would learn that Jimi Hendrix was very interested in working with Miles Davis. I’m saying that some of the barriers that we have come to accept as idiomatically correct are in fact false barriers because the real musicians whose work affected me from the beginning are musicians who love music, and they work in different areas.”

He goes on to stress that in the mid-to-late Sixties, as he and his peers were planting the flag for a new American avant-garde, he was also fully attuned to the contemporary revolution in rock and pop.

“Janis Joplin is one of the great masters from the time period of the Sixties, like Jimi Hendrix and Bobby Dylan — I grew up in that time period and I love these people,” he says. “Among the things I learned from [Joplin] was total dedication.”

Braxton’s formative musical experiences actually came roughly a decade earlier. Long before he began forging his own soundworld, he was, as he puts it, “very much involved” with the doo-wop scene in his native Chicago.

“I used to work with a theater band at the Regal Theater in Chicago, and so I had opportunities to play with the Del-Vikings and the Coasters,” Braxton says. “Frankie Lymon and Bill Haley and the Comets, they were my first heroes, and so I’ve always tried to keep a connection with that music.

“People tend to think, ‘Oh, Anthony Braxton, he’s like some kind of robot guy who’s not even human. All he does is look at equations,’” he continues. But in fact, I’m a guy who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I had my own doo-wop group in the early Fifties, and I have always kept a connection, when it was possible, to the composite musics, especially the popular music.”

“People tend to think, ‘Oh, Anthony Braxton, he’s like some kind of robot guy who’s not even human. All he does is look at equations.’ But in fact, I’m a guy who grew up on the South Side of Chicago.”

In true Braxton fashion, he makes no distinction between the innovations of his jazz and classical heroes and a figure like James Brown.

“I think of [jazz drumming great] Max Roach as the generator for the new rhythmic constructs and logics [in the Forties], and as we move into the Fifties, it would be James Brown and his ensemble that would bring forth fresh ideas about rhythmic logics and ensemble integration,” he says. “And plus, this guy was a master who had real energy and dedication. … These are the qualities I have always been attracted to: composite aesthetic logics, hard work. This guy would stay in the race for 40 years and more, always working, always researching. James Brown is my kind of guy.

As content as Braxton is with his own musical path, a show that the composer and his mother caught by the Godfather of Soul made him wish momentarily that his own work had a bit more intergenerational appeal. “[My mother and I] went and saw James Brown and Marvin Gaye, and my mother was never so happy,” he says. “I turned green with envy because she was so happy to hear the great James Brown and, later, the great Marvin Gaye. There was a moment when I found myself thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I was playing music with these guys — even my mother loved these guys!’”

Of the last musician he nods to on Quartet (New Haven) 2014, Braxton simply says, “Merle Haggard has always been one of my heroes,” and points out that when his friends aren’t calling him “Beefheart Boy, they “sometimes call me “‘Okie From Muskogee’ Boy.”

As voracious a listener as he’s been for all these decades, Braxton admits it’s been harder for him to keep up in recent years. He says that he hasn’t yet heard his star collaborator Greg Saunier’s main band, Deerhoof (“I have not heard this ensemble, but I have heard a lot about this ensemble and my hope is to get the CDs and do more research”), and doesn’t consider himself an expert on hip-hop (“I must say, my understanding of hip-hop and rap music is a surface understanding — I have listened to some of the music and found it to be very interesting”).

But unlike many of his age, he doesn’t lack for inspiration (he says he’d been up 2 a.m. on the morning of our interview working on his next opera) or curiosity. “More and more as I get older, I find myself at a distance between generations and part of that challenge for me involves buying the CDs, asking the musicians that I work with who I should listen to, so that I can keep a connection to what the younger musicians are doing,” he says. “Because in the end, I am only but a student of creative music and I want to keep learning.”

As his education continues, Braxton finds himself consistently amazed by what — and who — he encounters.

“This is a complex time for America, but this is not a complex time for Americans — we have some of the greatest musicians on the planet: people like Nels and Greg and Taylor Ho Bynum,” he says. “These guys, they are the real thing.”

In classic Braxton fashion, he adds, “Hooray for the cosmic forces of the universe!”

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