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Jazz Elder Statesman Anthony Braxton Continues To Defy Expectations

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
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The saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton has been a galvanizing figure in American music for more than 50 years – and at 76, he's definitely not slowing down. Braxton has two new box sets out this month, totaling more than 20 hours of music.

Anthony Braxton has always done things his own way; he's famous for creating his own musical syntax and strategies, in work that straddles jazz and classical traditions but conforms to no established pattern. He is a true American original — and by his own account, a perpetual work in progress.

"As a young guy," Braxton says, "I used to think, 'Wow, if I could just get my work done and live to 30, then I'll be the happiest guy in the world because I'd be able to live that long.' And suddenly when I got to 30, it was like, 'What?! I'm just getting started.' And that would happen [at] 40, 50, 60 and now 70. So it's really far out."

Speaking from his home in Connecticut, Braxton is a whirlwind of digression: a conversation with him can easily pinball from contemporary politics to ancient Egypt. But what he's most eager to talk about now is ZIM Music — his latest structural model in a lifelong pursuit to locate clarity within chaos. Braxton's new release, 12 COMP (ZIM) 2017, has a dozen performances by a series of dauntless chamber ensembles. On paper, these new compositions mix conventional notation with hand-drawn geometric shapes, a Braxton trademark.

What they present is a pathway to explore what Braxton calls "gradient logics." If that sounds a bit cerebral — well, that's usually the case with Anthony Braxton. But ZIM Music also draws inspiration from an unlikely source.

"I go back to the great visionary Walt Disney," he says, "[and] his theme park idea. Tomorrowland, Frontierland. He's got all these different designations. I have tried to learn from Mr. Disney, who was one of my heroes, to create with the Tri-Centric Model interreality experiences for each of the 12 degrees."

The Tri-Centric Model is a system Braxton has been developing for more than 50 years. As its latest iteration, ZIM Music draws on spatial relationships — giving the musicians tools to navigate the shifting spaces between one extreme and another.

"I can use the ZIM musics with respect to narrative structure and storytelling, and I can use ZIM music in the third degree as a probe into the unknown space, into the hidden space."

That push into the unknown is a hallmark of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which Braxton helped establish in Chicago, his hometown. Braxton's tireless invention keeps attracting new collaborators, like cellist Tomeka Reid.

"I do really think he's a genius composer," Reid explains. "I really do think that he has a language that's really distinctive."

Reid plays on most of the new ZIM Music set. At times, she says, the music on the page was literally impossible to execute. Braxton was interested in her choices in that moment, and the effect they'd have on the whole.

"I just feel like he has so much going on in his brain," continues Reid. "He's trying to explain everything, but he's just like, thinking and thinking and thinking. And he's been steeped in it so much that I think sometimes it's just like it's so clear to him, even though you're like, 'Wait a minute, what was that? What does that mean?' ... he has this huge imagination and he's just trying to figure out how to make it happen sonically, and he's so excited by people that want to help him."

Braxton has, of course, amassed plenty of help throughout his career: his peers and protégés include some of the leading figures in jazz. His influence is vast, and first among his lessons is an essential credo: be yourself.

Some of his convictions have found Braxton out of step with his constituency – for example, his views on the modern racial justice movement, which he sees as divisive. But it's a perspective wrought from personal experience.

"As a young guy," Braxton says, "my work was viewed as the essence of that which was not Black. And for 20 or 30 years, this was a kind of an albatross around my neck, where whatever I would do, it would be judged whether it was Black — authentically Black, I think that would be the phrase. As if people with dark complexions have only one kind of way of thinking, and that a unified field of thinking was somehow healthy. And maybe for some people, it is healthy. For myself, I was interested as a young person in composite reality, and that has not changed."

That "composite reality" has always been a musical as well as a social ideal for Braxton. It's one way to understand why this staunchly independent artist makes a point of revisiting the common jazz repertory; the second of his releases this month is Quartet (Standards) 2020, a 13-CD boxed set recorded early last year. For Braxton, it all comes down to a spirit of inquiry.

"My work was never a rejection of the tradition," he clarifies, "rather, it was an affirmation of the tradition."

And as he continues to forge his path, Braxton's affirmation has become a tradition unto itself.

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