Paris Transatlantic review by Clifford Allen

Anthony Braxton & Joe Morris – 4 Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (CF 100)
For its one hundredth release, Portugal’s Clean Feed has brought together two of the world’s finest improvising composers in a four-disc set, reedman Anthony Braxton and guitarist Joe Morris. Each disc contains one hour-long unrehearsed improvisation. Boxed sets are nothing new for the Braxton-phile, and when I recently talked to him, Morris commented astutely on the reasons for this: Braxton’s ideas require continuous restatement in order for people to catch up with them, and that goes for some of the things he’s been saying over the past three decades as well as why four CDs might be required to make a series of simple improvisational points. Morris relates that one of the things that attracted him to Braxton is the latter’s very clear rhetorical logic that can be approached through both un-premeditated and fully notated constructs.
On the surface, Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 might seem to be an unlikely pairing. Yet Braxton and Morris met years ago while separately on tour in Europe. Both are connected with academia, Braxton at Wesleyan and Morris at the nearby New England Conservatory, and Morris has long taught Braxton’s music to his students. Mary Halvorson, a student of Morris’s who works in Braxton’s ensembles, gave her graduate recital partly in duo with Morris, and this was the first time Braxton heard him play. Liking very much what he heard, he suggested collaborating. Though they discussed the idea of a recording in conversation, it wasn’t until Morris got a call from engineer Jon Rosenberg, who had booked time in Wesleyan’s Crowell Hall, that he realized the sessions were actually going to happen.
For the sessions, Braxton used an hourglass to mark time and when the sand had run to the bottom, the pair would break for lunch and then flip the hourglass and play again. This process went on for two days and yielded some of the most startling improvised music in recent memory. Braxton is heard strictly on saxophones – sopranino, soprano, alto, baritone, bass, and contrabass – while Morris plays an arch-top acoustic (with a broken finger!). One of the reasons this duet functions so well is that Morris approached the situation knowing Braxton’s interests and influences – players like Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Paul Desmond. While Braxton doesn’t play like Konitz or Marsh, he has an understanding of what they were doing and how that can be assimilated into his context. Similarly, playing in ways that recall Jimmy Raney, Billy Bauer or a West African kora without direct imitation gives Morris a tremendous amount of stylistic fluidity.
This is entirely egalitarian music, a very large space in which no voice dominates the whole. Each piece is sprawling, the ebb and flow creating distinct areas even though the music isn’t divided into sections – thus, Braxton and Morris occupy both an entire canvas and a needle-droplet of paint at the same time. The fourth disc finds Braxton in the alto’s lower registers at the outset in a wide-vibrato post-Ayler ballad, its bluesy contours offering some of his most pathos-laden playing since the contrabass clarinet solo on trumpeter Jacques Coursil’s Black Suite (America, 1969). Morris’s lower-register strums bring out worried alto phrases, a wave that’s continually cresting. Braxton stretches out into liquid long tones which Morris’s chords and curled lines ride, then works his way into a hard-bitten space. The music brightens as Braxton turns to the soprano, a delicate cloud of lilting breath and pluck, though it becomes surprisingly tensile. Morris chooses closely spaced phrases in a limited tonal range here, and Braxton’s lines are concentrated and sparse. Buoyed by contrabass saxophone and its lurch and swagger, Morris’s lines become busier, stretching out from a single down-stroke. Braxton hits a jog and there’s a brief romp before they return to an amble.
Even when they appear to be “finding” each other, there’s an obvious rapport. The first day’s first improvisation finds both tiptoeing around each other at the start, but a few minutes in Morris spikes and scumbles, drawing Braxton’s soprano out into quick whinnies and circular runs. Early on, the saxophonist finds ways to comp and support Morris’s flights, matching his phrases with easy, toe-tapping swing, clean tones and torqued squawks. As Braxton hits a bowel-churning scream on his lowest horn, Morris comps with the sound of busted lamellae and later scrapes and whittles alongside bumblebee alto. After this meeting, Morris characterized Braxton as an “easy” person to play with, and that’s clearly coming from a developed mutual understanding of what a duo exploration is. Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 is a set for the ages.

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