In the notes to Mosaic's The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, producer Michael Cuscuna writes the simplest definition of free jazz's legendary multi-instrumentalist and composer.
"The penultimate outcast," whose controversial complexities are akin to "the most forbidding European and American avant-garde art music," is what Cuscuna calls the 63-year-old MacArthur "genius" Fellowship recipient, whose career has encompassed more than 100 recordings and 350 compositions.
While Wynton Marsalis disses Braxton, modernist John Zorn worships Braxton's atonalism. Often photographed soberly unsmiling, Braxton can have a flair for theatricality in performance and he is famed for titling tunes with silly diagrams and cryptic lettering. Known as an improvisational saxophonist (from the tiniest sopranino to the biggest contrabass) Braxton also plays flute, clarinet and piano. Inspired by jazz titans Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane; John Cage, Markus Stockhausen and Looney Tunes' composer Carl Stalling are heard in Braxton's work.
Still, Braxton is an iconoclast - on his own in a world of his own devising.
Those elements and influences were at hand when Braxton's Falling River Quartet held its North American premiere Friday for Ars Nova Workshop at Settlement Music School. [Braxton conducted his Composition N.103 (for Seven Trumpets) with costumed instrumentalists and N. 169 for a brass quintet on swivel chairs on Saturday at St. Mark's Church.]
With Erica Dicker (violin), Sally Norris (piano) and Katherine Young (bassoon), Braxton played a battery of saxophones and clarinet. While he quietly cadged a snake charmer's subtone curl from his alto, let loose spittle-spraying toots from his soprano and long languid squeals from his sopranino, Falling River's members created their own painterly dramas.
As Braxton's undulating contrabass sax provided rumbles to shake the walls, Young honked horridly and swung sweetly with Dicker and Norris plucking, caressing and slicing their strings and keys with equal parts manic passion and icy precision.
By the time Braxton's quartet twinkled and clinked to a finale, the harshest winds of the more than 60-minute piece were rendered quiet with but a few ugly demons crashing the river.