LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton has been a galvanizing figure in American music for more than 50 years. And at 76, he's definitely not slowing down. Braxton has two new box sets out this month, more than 20 hours of music. Nate Chinen, from Jazz Night in America and member station WBGO, tells us how this elder statesman continues to defy expectations.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "COMPOSITION NO. 410")
NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: Anthony Braxton has always done things his own way. He's famous for creating his own musical syntax and strategies. His work straddles jazz and classical traditions but conforms to no established pattern. He is a true American original and, by his own account, a perpetual work in progress.
ANTHONY BRAXTON: As a young guy, I used to think, wow, if I could just get my work done and live to 30, then I'll be the happiest guy in the world because I've been able to live that long. And suddenly, when I got to 30, it was like, what? I'm just getting started. And that would happen for 40, 50, 60 and now 70. So it's really far out.
CHINEN: Speaking from his home in Connecticut, Braxton is a whirlwind of digression. What he's most eager to talk about now is ZIM Music, his latest structural model in a lifelong pursuit to locate clarity within chaos.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "COMPOSITION NO. 416")
CHINEN: Braxton has composed everything from solo works to operas. His new release, "12 Comp (ZIM) 2017," has a dozen performances by a series of dauntless chamber ensembles. On paper, these new compositions mix conventional notation with hand-drawn geometric shapes, a Braxton trademark. What they present is a pathway to explore what Braxton calls gradient logics. If that sounds a bit cerebral, well, that's usually the case with Anthony Braxton. But ZIM Music also draws inspiration from an unlikely source.
BRAXTON: I go back to the great visionary, Walt Disney. His theme park idea - Tomorrowland, Frontierland - and he's got all these different designations. I have tried to learn from Mr. Disney, who was one of my heroes, to create, with the Tri-Centric Model, inter-reality experiences for each of the 12 degrees.
CHINEN: The Tri-Centric Model is a system Braxton has been developing for more than 50 years. As its latest iteration, ZIM Music draws on spatial relationships, giving the musicians tools to navigate the shifting spaces between one extreme and another. Braxton's tireless invention keeps attracting new collaborators, like cellist Tomeka Reid.
TOMEKA REID: I do really think he's a genius composer. I really do think that he has a language that's really distinctive.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "COMPOSITION NO. 402")
CHINEN: Reid plays on most of the new ZIM Music set, and at times, she says, the music on the page was literally impossible to execute. Braxton was interested in her choices in that moment and the effect they'd have on the whole.
REID: I just feel like he has so much going on in his brain, and he's been steeped in it so much that I think sometimes it's just like - it's so clear to him, even though you're like wait a minute, what was that? Like, what does that mean? Like, you know, he has this huge imagination, and he's just trying to figure out how to make it happen sonically. And he's so excited by people that want to help him.
CHINEN: Braxton has amassed plenty of help throughout his career. His peers and proteges include some of the leading figures in jazz. Some of his convictions have found Braxton out of step with his constituency, for example, his views on the modern racial justice movement, which he sees as divisive. But his perspective comes from personal experience.
BRAXTON: As a young guy, my work was viewed as the essence of that which was not Black. And for 20 or 30 years, this was a kind of, like, albatross around my neck, as if people with dark complexions have only one kind of way of thinking and a unified feel of thinking was somehow healthy. For myself, I was interested, as a young person, in composite reality, and that has not changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "INVITATION")
CHINEN: That composite reality has always been a musical, as well as a social, ideal for Braxton. It's one way to understand why this staunchly independent artist makes a point of revisiting the common jazz repertoire. The second of his releases this month is "Quartet (Standards) 2020," a 13-CD box set recorded early last year.
BRAXTON: My work was never a rejection of the tradition. Rather, it was an affirmation of the tradition.
CHINEN: And as he continues to forge his path, Braxton's affirmation has become a tradition unto itself.
For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "INVITATION")
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