Anthony Braxton / Joe Morris – Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (CF 100)
Portugal’s Clean Feed has rapidly become one of the finest labels documenting jazz and improvised music at the intersection of what once was called NY Downtown music, the lineage of 1970s loft jazz, and European free improvisation. For its 100th release, they’ve dropped a real dilly: a four-disc summit meeting between Anthony Braxton and guitarist Joe Morris.
How to unpack a review like this? How to find a way into four hour-long improvisations (Braxton’s favored format currently, for which he actually uses a good old hourglass)? Duo improvs are some of the hardest, the most naked, the most challenging in which to sustain ideas without avoiding mere chattiness. It depends not only on compelling instrumental languages, but also on contrast, meaningful discourse, and provocation.
Braxton has recorded a vast number of duos over the years, from the little known (with pianist Giorgio Gaslini) to the widely celebrated (his stellar performances with Max Roach). Whether these sessions have involved improvisations exclusively or have feasted on Braxton’s compositions (or even standards), it’s long struck me that the best of them (with Roach, with Derek Bailey, with Richard Teitelbaum) have succeeded to the extent that they aren’t simply Braxton music. Those players who are strong enough, distinctive enough to shake the great man from his singularly obsessive musical focus are the ones capable of turning in great duos.
The quick judgment here is that Morris is up to that level, on each of these counts. In fact, it’s amazing how resourceful he is. Whereas Braxton can change mood and tone simply by pulling out one of his dozens of horns, one of the things I’ve always loved about Morris – and he remains one of my favorite guitarists – is how gifted he is with touch, attack, articulation and so forth. The concentration it takes to play in this way, and to sculpt such careful, harmonically interesting lines over such lengths is exceedingly impressive.
In some sense, it’s a shame not to hear Morris tackle some of Braxton’s charts, but that’s a small knock since their interactions are so tart, so fresh, and filled with surprise. The guitarist’s clean style is perfectly matched with Braxton’s reeds (for those keep score at home, he brought the following to this music: sopranino, soprano, alto, C-melody, baritone, bass, and contrabass). With such resourceful musical personalities and such wide imaginations, each hour ends up being packed to the gills with good moments (and of course some inevitable dull spots). The best moments are when the two are either shaken out of their comfort zone (the wisps of smoke that open the first piece or the final disc’s lovely, dark-hued ballad) or when they thoroughly own their more customary styles and approaches (spiky intervallic work from both players throughout, high gear chromatic passages, the honking elephantine grooves that issue forth regularly). But this isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of other excellent moments that fall outside this scheme. Indeed, the two seem particularly well suited to long passages for rhythmic variations.
Braxton and Morris really do play well together, with tough and meaningful contrast where others might coast on tedious mimesis. They leave just enough space for individual statements, and they cool things out just often enough with some reflective balladeering. Of course with so much music, in this particular format, things get desultory at times. After all, a mini-box with four hour-long improvisations is not the kind of thing even an ardent Braxophile like me will pull from the shelf too often. And again, I can’t help wishing that they’d varied the release by including two discs with shorter pieces. But this is the release we’ve got. And despite some longeurs, this is a bracing document of two superb improvisers.