There was surely one burning question on the minds of the audience who packed the chic New York City nightclub (Le) Poisson Rouge to capacity on a Friday night for the first evening of Tri-Centric Modelling: Past, Present and Future, a two-day celebration marking the 65th birthday of Anthony Braxton. The concert, as well as a second event presented the next day at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, were mounted to raise funds for the Tri-Centric Foundation, a non-profit organization meant to help document and promote Braxton's work.
Friday's programme featured an outstanding array of Braxton's peers, acolytes and protégés. But the burning issue at hand had everything to do with just three of the participants — pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and percussionist Gerry Hemingway — and a fourth, Braxton himself. Together, they represented one of the most reliably thrilling ensembles of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
For Braxton, a leader who has marshalled any number of distinguished groups, this was the unit to conjure with: one rightly to be cited alongside Miles Davis's quintets, John Coltrane's quartet and Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity trio. When Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway took the stage midway through the evening, their astonishing cohesion during a seamless sequence of brittle marches, luminous unison melodies and brief, roiling outbursts melted away the years.
Still, you sat in rapt expectancy, wondering if Braxton might complete the reunion. That he spent much of the trio set standing nearby, beaming in approval with an alto sax strapped around his neck, fueled the anticipation. Finally, 26 minutes into the 34 minute set, Braxton stepped up and pecked his way into a familiar theme: Coltrane's "Impressions," rendered prismatic, contemplative and joyous. A table of critics was dumbstruck; some fans reportedly wept.
It wasn't Braxton's first impromptu appearance during the festival: he had previously joined synthesizer player Richard Teitelbaum, who was scheduled to play solo. (Nor would it be the last; on Saturday Braxton replaced an indisposed Chris Jonas for a lean, wiry duet with saxophonist James Fei.) But the quartet reunion felt momentous, not least because it represented a rare instance of Braxton revisiting a past landmark.
In light of what had just happened, the evening's finale ran the risk of anticlimax. Braxton's sole planned appearance as a performer during the festival came with a version of the 12+1tet extensively documented during its 2006 stint at New York's Iridium Jazz Club.
Instead, Composition 361, a taut 24 minutes compared to the hour-long sprawls of the Iridium engagement, was a vivacious endorsement of Braxton's ceaseless vitality and imagination. The music moved at a congenial lurch, textures continually in flux, with Braxton's utopian take on artistic democracy illustrated in breakaway solos and sub-groups that coursed throughout the massed ensemble. (A stair-stepping duo incursion was later identified as a theme from Braxton's opera Trillium R, a wily presentiment of Saturday's event.)
The early part of the evening demonstrated the span of Braxton's influence. Bagpiper Matthew Welch, whose stylistic eclecticism mirrors Braxton's own, played an opening invocation. Steve Coleman and Jonathan Finlayson, on alto sax and trumpet, engaged in genre-flouting dialogue. John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Brad Jones and Hemingway brought fire, wit and lightning reflexes to brash takes on Braxton's Composition No. 23D and a chart apiece from Zorn and Douglas. Flautist Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings, with violinist Renée Baker and cellist Tomeka Reid, reconciled cerebral modern classical angularity and earthy melodic generosity.
If Friday's programme, in its emphasis on Braxton's example, bore the earmarks of a characteristic jazz retrospective, Saturday's offering was tilted more toward the notion of a canonical repertoire. The programme was chiefly devoted to three excerpts from Trillium E, an opera Braxton recorded in the spring. Between those segments, smaller instrumental groups played vital selections from throughout Braxton's sprawling oeuvre, much of it early and seldom encountered live.
Given the idiosyncrasies of his output, it still registers with some surprise that Braxton's operas largely adhere to the well-worn European model, including genre-conventional vocal writing. As in Braxton's previously deocumented Trillium R, the newer opera, subtitled Wallingford's 'Polarity Gambit,' features creditable orchestral writing, doled out in moody washes and chattering outbursts.
The libretto, by Braxton, offered a whimsical mix of fantastical elements, slangy lingo and jargon. In an initial section of the first act, a genie called Arfthro emerges from a bottle rubbed by Bubba John Jack, also designated as Herald. "Stick with me, Bubba, and I'll make you a multi-billionaire," Arfthro proclaims. "Not exactly, sir," Bubba responds. "I'll take 38,200,057 dollars and 38 cents — and spare me small bills that contain G-plated serial numbers, please, with exchange rates consistent with the Zurich Security Index."
Phew. To their credit, Braxton's vocalists sang with obvious commitment, though the orchestra sometimes obscured their efforts. Soprano Anne Rhodes and tenor Nick Hallett were especially strong. Despite a few last-minute personnel substitutions, the orchestra honourably conveyed Braxton's conception: ever idiosyncratic, ever visionary and as always teeming with infectious heart.