Anthony Braxton / Joe Morris – Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (CF 100)
The formula behind this recording is daunting. Two musicians who have not played before meet to improvise. They reserve a hall and engage a recording engineer. Over two successive days they play and record four performances, each wholly improvised, each an hour in length. The results—the complete works of the Braxton/Morris–duo are released here.
The process is similar to that underlying the two CDs of Hour Glass (on Emanem) in which Tony Bianco described the decision to record hour-long improvisations with Paul Dunmall: “It’s not that we were trying to run a marathon, just that when you play for that amount of time sometimes you run into certain musical episodes that are amazing. It’s like you have to somehow be in contact with the whole piece from the beginning ’til the end and try to make it stand together without losing the spirit.” The same process is at work here. On each piece Morris plays guitar virtually continuously while Braxton gradually shifts through the spectrum of his saxophones, arrayed from E flat sopranino through B flat soprano, alto, C melody, Baritone, bass and contrabass.
There is very little cat-and-mouse or follow-the-leader or lose-the-pursuer improvisation here. Often Braxton will establish an initial direction, sometimes tentatively; the two begin to shape a mood and the music (not just a dialogue—usually they’re playing the music continuously, not apparently “talking” about it or “discussing” where it might be) proceeds from there. Each is a master of phantom bopping, playing close to standard changes or a cycle of fourths to establish a transient coherence until one pattern lapses, disappears or give way to another.
While Braxton achieves a multiplicity of voices in part through the sheer number of his seven saxophones and a host of attendant techniques, Morris does an extraordinary job of finding different sounds and relationships within a lightly amplified archtop guitar, spinning out lightning runs of resonant harmonics or muffled boppish or serial-sounding lines, all finding certain accord in Braxton’s own developing parts. Form is both given and taken, but it’s established spontaneously. There’s mercurial musical intelligence almost always evident here and it consists not in an epic of mimesis but in the assured sense of each musician working a shared ground in which concordances might arise both inevitably as well as deliberately. It hardly matters if it’s the rapid bass sax sputter midway through “Improvisation III” against what sounds like a small orchestra of mbiras (there’s a lot of Africa in Morris’s guitar vocabulary), or the host of Indian and Japanese sonorities that Morris seems to command from his guitar. Braxton long ago codified the languages of his music and the saxophone (from wide intervals to pointillism and long tones), and he’s a master of creating large scale contrast between transient harmonic systems, and contrasting emphases between linear and sonic/timbral approaches. He can circular breathe and talk through a saxophone at the same time, while Morris finds a percussion instrument to bounce across his strings. Braxton can also use his bass horns to create layers of texture over which Morris’s guitar lines can dance. The result and maybe the surprise is the extent to which the two create continuously listenable music because they’re continuously listening to the larger patterns and not just the simultaneous instants of one another’s craft. It’s music for the long haul (the hour glass) just as it’s music for the instant. It’s also wonderful to hear how Morris can develop a texture out of the remains of a duo passage, gradually arching it into a new terrain before Braxton joins in, in another range, again.
It’s an admirable way for Clean Feed to mark its hundredth release and a rare achievement by two major musicians.