Doable fantasy

Visionary composer Anthony Braxton realizes a profoundly liberating group concept.

GATHER ROUND Anthony Braxton, fourth from left (back row), lets his band have its say.

GATHER ROUND Anthony Braxton, fourth from left (back row), lets his band have its say. Photograph: Scott Friedlander

Anthony Braxton has always dreamt big. One of the Chicago-born reedist's early compositions was scored for four amplified shovels and "one large pile of coal"; another was intended to be performed on multiple planets simultaneously. It goes without saying that neither work has yet been played, but the 61-year-old isn't too worried. "I would like for all my compositions to be performed," says Braxton, calling from Connecticut's Wesleyan University, where he has taught since 1990. "But if you don't compose it, you can be sure it won't be performed."

Even if you ignore his purely conceptual triumphs, Braxton has amassed one of the meatiest and most varied bodies of work in experimental music. In 1969, he practically invented the genre of solo saxophone performance with the landmark double LP For Alto. His '70s output—including classical-influenced pieces scored for two pianos and, famously, four orchestras, as well as dizzyingly complex avant-jazz—was even more ambitious. Braxton reconciled his disparate interests in his landmark '80s quartets and continues to refine them in an elaborate scheme called Ghost Trance Music, which calls upon players to reshape pieces in real time. Though widely considered a creative genius, the composer has drawn his share of ire. Critics, fueled by Braxton's use of Kandinsky-like graphics for titles of pieces, as well as album portraits depicting the bespectacled composer puffing on an old-fashioned pipe, have labeled him as overly intellectual, often pegging him with the cardinal insult of jazz: unswinging.

Such portrayals still dog Braxton, but he remains calm and invokes what has become his tried-and-true defense. "Well, for one, I'm not a jazz musician—and please put that in your article," he asserts. "I know I'm an African-American, and I know I play the saxophone, but I'm not a jazz musician. I'm not a classical musician, either. My music is like my life: It's in between these areas."

Braxton's latest project is no less difficult to pin down. Inspired by Native American rituals, Ghost Trance Music is perhaps better described in political terms than musical ones: In its ideal state, GTM is a model of democracy in action. In the '80s, Braxton began experimenting with overlaying multiple compositions simultaneously. GTM takes that concept even further, by allowing each player the freedom to launch into alternate Braxton pieces at will during a performance, and to invite other musicians to join in. Though the idea seems outlandish, the composer didn't have to look far for its inspiration. "The model for the interaction possibilities of this music system comes directly from the unique vibrational dynamics of America," he says, "in the sense that we have autonomous states and a federal government."

Nowhere have what Braxton calls the "multihierarchical" features of his latest system been documented so gloriously as on 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006, a new nine-CD box chronicling the entirety of his March run at the midtown club, where he was accompanied by an outstanding 12-piece ensemble containing many of his former Wesleyan students. During each set, after stating a typical GTM melody—which, despite the system's mysterious name, can suggest the off-kilter lurch of a drunken marching band—the group splinters off into various self-organized factions. The strings might unite in a stately cadence, while the brass players emit boisterous whinnies; the players scribble on small whiteboards and use hand gestures to signal composition numbers, as the ensemble becomes a sort of harmonious metropolis. The bustling counterpoint fuels some torrid Braxton sax solos, but perhaps more important is the mind-set it cultivates in the composer. "Once the initial melodic material is executed, suddenly the music opens up," he says. "I'm in a land of surprises."

Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, a key player in this and many other GTM performances, shares his mentor's sense of wonder. "I think [GTM is] an incredible statement of trust, both toward Braxton's sidepeople and also his own materials," says Bynum. "The pieces are strong enough that whatever we do with them, it will still sound like his music."

In recent years, Braxton has expanded not just the musical space but also the physical realities of his compositions, staging mobile happenings in Wesleyan's hockey arena and at the World Financial Center, the latter piece featuring an ensemble of 100 tubas. But the composer's next local appearance will be an encore Iridium run with a seven-piece band, beginning Thursday 29. Given the aforementioned spatial experiments, one wonders if Braxton chafes against the relatively staid jazz-club environment. "Look, it's hard to get work in America," he says matter-of-factly. "So I'm just grateful that Iridium would give me the chance to play."

9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 is out now on Firehouse 12. The Anthony Braxton Septet plays Iridium Thu 29--Sun 1.