Concerts for Living Legend Anthony Braxton Light Up Bay Area Jazz Scene

Avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton left an indelible mark on jazz in the Bay Area and beyond. (Peter Gannushkin)

Anthony Braxton’s music can seem chaotic and uproarious, willfully opaque, startlingly beautiful, stripped down to essentials or vauntingly ambitious. A lion of the avant-garde, he’s never settled into a comfortable “mature” style. Dedicated to the creative process as a vehicle for communal and self-discovery, the composer, multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow has nurtured some of jazz’s most celebrated and inventive improvisers.

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A series of upcoming concerts marking Braxton’s 75th birthday offers an opportunity to engage with the living legend’s ever-evolving musical universe, and to gauge his potent and enduring influence on the Bay Area scene. The celebration kicks off on Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Temescal Arts Center in Oakland with a radically expanded version of drummer Jason Levis and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s duo B. Experimental Band. Featuring more than two dozen Bay Area musicians under the guest direction of Santa Fe saxophonist Chris Jonas, the sprawling ensemble explores Braxton’s unrecorded Ghost Trance Music No. 246, a series of marches from the No. 40 collection, and well-documented pieces from Braxton’s quartet recordings, including compositions 6F69q and 23c.

Like maps written in secret code, Braxton’s scores are famously open to interpretation, and the duo B. Experimental Band players have spent many hours in rehearsal working out how to navigate them. “His music has that feeling of discovery,” Mezzacappa says. “For us, learning his music over the decades, he’s not a static force. He’s been in motion this whole time. It’s funny and frustrating trying to pin this down. There might be 10 live versions of a piece and each one is very different. Playing his music means immersing yourself in all the possibilities.”

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A much smaller version of the duo B. Experimental Band reprises several of the Temescal pieces on Feb. 2 at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall. The distilled set opens the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra’s weekly CJC residency, putting Braxton’s “outside” music in dialogue with the Squeezebox Orchestra’s “inside” sound, which draws on jazz’s familiar rhythms and harmonic structures.

The second half of Braxton75 unfolds in the atrium of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on Feb. 16 when Jonas leads AB West 8+1, a hybrid ensemble featuring Mezzacappa, the Del Sol String Quartet and the Goggle Sax Quartet (with Jonas, Dan Plonsey, Cory Wright, and Randy McKean). Jonas spent several years in the 1990s performing and recording with Braxton, and he’s leading the nine-piece group on Braxton compositions previously performed only once or twice, including Composition 18 (for string quartet) and Composition 37 (for saxophone quartet). The full ensemble explores Composition 265, which is one of Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music pieces, a body of work inspired by his deep study of 19th-century Native American rituals that arose in response to  decimated populations and ethnic cleansing.

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Jonas was performing with Braxton as he developed Ghost Trance Music compositions, a process that he describes as “an almost scientific exploration of conduction techniques and cuing. We had some marvelous concerts, several of which are available on record. Anthony called me about a month ago and said he was listening to those albums again.”

Where most bandleaders rehearse with an ensemble aiming to attain a particular result, Braxton is often more interested in the journey than the destination. “One of the things you don’t want to have happen is for the music to get too good,” Jonas says. “It loses its expressive capability. When it got miraculous, he disbanded it. A lot of people complain about Braxton that his process leads to unlistenable music. I think we have a greater sense of cultural democracy, a greater range of possibilities because of him. He’s been a vital force in the ecological health of the entire creative world.”

While Braxton was an early member of Afrocentric group the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Chicago-reared multi-reed player was always a party of one, doggedly pursuing his own vision. He has often cited his primary influences as Dave Brubeck Quartet alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and march king John Philip Sousa. His impact on the creative ecology of the Bay Area was profound. As a professor at Mills College from 1985–90, he worked closely with fellow faculty members (particularly William Winant and David Rosenboom) and Rova Saxophone Quartet while attracting a brilliant cast of graduate students to the school. Among them were John Shiurba, Dan Plonsey, Matt Ingalls, Randy McKean and Gino Robair, performers and composers who went on to reshape the region’s creative music scene.

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“He’s so generous and giving of his time to his students,” says Robair, whose large-ensemble performance for Braxton’s 60th birthday at Oakland’s now-closed 21 Grand introduced a new generation to Braxton’s music.

“He’d say, ‘We should make a record together,’ and he meant it,” Robair continues. “He realized it was a way for a student he had respect for to enter the world. He was so funny. He’d say it was going to introduce them to his enemies and his friends. That generosity informed the entire scene. He didn’t come here to stake out his claim and create a cult-like status. Anthony didn’t buy into that shit. He was trying to get people to do their own thing.”

Rather than offering Braxton a tenured position, Mills let Braxton get away. Promptly hired by Wesleyan University,  he set up his Tri-Centric Foundation and fostered a new circle of young artists. Over the years his writing has grown increasingly ambitious as he’s created large scale operas and multimedia productions documented on the releases Trillium J and the seven-disc box Quintet (Tristano) 2014.

Braxton, who now lives in Connecticut, will be on hand in the spring performing as part of Other Minds 25. The Bay Area’s premiere festival devoted to new music presents him on April 5 in the Veterans Building’s Taube Atrium Theater in a duo with harpist Jacqueline Kerrod. The concert is part of a triple bill that includes pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and guitarist Mary Halvorson (a former student of Braxton’s at Wesleyan who was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship).

Charles Amirkhanian, the co-founder and artistic director of Other Minds, knows from first-hand experience that with Braxton you have to expect the unexpected.

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“My fondest memory of him was in Minneapolis in 1980 at the New Music America concert series,” he says. “He came out on stage with his horn by himself and played for 30 minutes without stopping, only ballads. It was such a contrast to what you think of him doing. He can do that, but he’s trying to find something unprecedented. It was mesmerizing.”

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