That, in a two-word nutshell, is what this newsletter is all about. What is good, what is bad? What is this, what is that, what’s the difference? And most of all, if this musician or that writer pleases me in this one piece or book or story, are they good in all they do and in all they think?
Sidebar: I recently reviewed of a book of criticism, and came back to how Italian expresses like and dislike, as mi dispiace, “it pleases me,” which is a more exact and deeper way to say “like.”
That last is always important and, culturally, is in the fore right now. The nature of human beings is such that terrible people can create beautiful works and ideas, and I’ve written before about how the artistic thought and process is, in a social sense, sociopathic at the very least, certainly authoritarian. It’s possible for an artist to be a tyrant over their materials and creation while also being ethical and moral in their social and personal lives—plenty are. But there’s no inherent connection between the quality of creative work and the personal quality of the artist. And you can appreciate Gesualdo without being a fan of the man himself.
I say this not to insult Anthony Braxton, but to frame his work. In a recent interview for grammy.com he said:
"The new woke academia is like everything else we see in this period, an inversion where far more people can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy."
And yes, it gets worse.
In a non-malicious way, I’m glad to see people dunking on this. What I mean is that I value irreverence as the default setting when approaching any artist, and I need to approach Braxton with irreverence because he is a particular case where there is a cultish aura around him. In my life, I have never encountered a Braxton fan (nor a musician who studied under him at Wesleyan) who doesn’t not think that everything Braxton produces is sheer genius.
Braxton’s stature is secure as both musician and composer, the leader of bands and ensembles, and as a teacher. He has made a lot of great music and he’s touched the lives of a lot of notable artists in the generations that have followed him, and so his influence in jazz and creative non-jazz is important and beneficial. And he’s a thoughtful guy, which makes his dismissiveness about “woke” disappointing, you’d think he’d put a touch of thought into it instead of sounding like just another out-of-touch (white) guy angry that the kids these days are questionin’ mah authoritah’. When you even remotely come off as Andrew Sullivan, you’re lost intellectually and morally.
And as for his output, his quartet with Marilyn Crispell, John Lindberg, and Gerry Hemingway made great, exciting music, and the way he tackles Charlie Parker and standards (on a new set I recommend below) is important—it may not always please me but I want to hear what he’s doing, I want to hear his own questioning of traditions because what survives that is gold.
But Braxton can be self-satisfied and obscure to the point of fraud. His meaningless mathematical formula for titles is problematic, especially when the content might only be the band playing a major scale up and down a few times. That’s called practicing, but Braxton has the stature to pass that off as a “composition,” and fuck that noise. And the Trillium operas are some of the worst compositions I’ve ever encountered, and I don’t mean bad as in it displeases me, which could be anything, I mean pretentious and hermetically self-involved to the point of being offensive, the artist expecting five hours of your time to regard his nonsense philosophies. The librettos are terrible, the vocal writing is the worst kind of modernist cliches of angularity and stentorianism, and the entire synthetic ritual is puerile. There, I’ve said it, and if I’m the only person in the world with this critical appraisal, then I will hold on to it fiercely.
Yet when he is curious, when he has questions rather than answer, he can be great. In my view, he’s truly an experimental musician, willing to try things and fail—with failure being essential to progress—but at some point perhaps the praise and institutional support went to his head, and with his following he became an artist who cannot fail, who can only be failed. But the new Quartet (Standards) 2020, at 13 CDs, is absolutely engaging and meaningful. Braxton is asking questions about the tradition, and when it comes to music that has an improvisational core, questions lead to better results than answer.
Recordings of the Week
Anthony Braxton, Quartet (Standards) 2020
Julius Hemphill, The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony
Along with Braxton, there’s another great collection from a creative jazz musician out this year, New World Records’ archival The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony, previously unheard solo and group improvisations and composition from Julius Hemphill. In the scheme of my personal experience, I’ve listened to much more Hemphill than Braxton, because the former’s balance of expression, intelligence, his musical gathering together of folk and blues traditions, has pleased me more. Hemphill attracts my heart immediately, then I hear this ideas, while with Braxton, I need a taste of the argument before I can tell if it pleases me.
Along with the music, there is the typical informative and insightful documentation from NWW, led by a wonderful essay from Hemphill’s colleague Marty Ehrlich. This is shaping up to be a titanic year in jazz reissues and archival recordings (Don Cherry, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, et al), and those two collections are right at the top of the class.
As I was writing this, I saw, through mentions on Twitter, that Fred Rzewski has died. It’s such a loss. Death is part of life, and there are tragedies all the time. Mourning comes in layers, the deaths of families and loved ones are wrenching and painful, those we don’t know, less so. Outside of family, the deaths of people I didn’t know (I interviewed Rzewski on the phone a few years ago) that have really affected me were Don Cherry’s and now Rzewski’s. Each meant losing something that is irreplaceable. There was no more human musician than Cherry, and there was no one angrier, yet with the kind of intelligence to turn that anger into both emotional inspiration and sheer compositional brilliance. Rzewski eschewed the idea that he was a political composer, even though he was the greatest political composer ever. What made him so was, again, having questions rather than answers. His music wasn’t about creating something like the “Internationale,” but pointing out that shit was fucked up, and bullshit, and doing it with a command of musical materials, form, structure, pleasurable melodies and harmonies, and rhythmic energy, that was better than 99% of the composers of the 20th and 21st century. And that he can make a piece, Coming Together, that is a piece of explosives that can be handled by so-called “classical” musicians, theater people, and Mos Def, is beyond a big fucking deal.
This one hurts.