Anthony Braxton & Walter Frank 4
Improvisations (Duets) 2004 (Leo)
by Chris Kelsey 17 October 2005
By my unofficial count, this marks Anthony Braxton’s one
zillionth record release. On the one hand, it’s nice to have
such an important artist so exhaustively documented. On the
other, a certain indifference sets in on the part of at least
one listener, as the number of Braxton albums—many of them
these days featuring less than fully-formed student
collaborators—seems to grow exponentially with each passing
year. This double-CD set with the pianist Walter Frank is a
case in point.
Frank is a classically-trained pianist who, at the time of
this recording, was working toward his MA in composition and
performance at Wesleyan University. He seems enamored of
Debussy in particular; his nearly non-stop reliance on the
sustain pedal reminds me of the French impressionist’s works
for solo piano. While Debussy is an obvious touchstone, his
work also draws on the breadth of non-tonal (and tonal, for
that matter) 20th Century classical practices. He’s got nice
chops and a fertile imagination, yet his playing lacks the
authority that I expect from a world class improviser.
Of course, Braxton can—and seemingly will—play with anybody
on their terms. Yet, as always, he’s Braxton being Braxton.
Frank’s musical world doesn’t come anywhere near encompassing
the jazz at Braxton’s core, so Braxton goes to Frank,
eschewing most overt jazz tendencies without obscuring his
personality. He engages Frank’s classical bent in typically
fine fashion, worrying over motivs, exploring a wide range of
timbres, and imbuing the music with characteristic intensity.
Braxton largely defers to Frank when it comes to setting
specific areas of exploration, but lends the music its sense
of continuity and forward motion.
Given Braxton’s drive to stretch, it’s not surprising that
he would take on a partner like Frank. I don’t recall ever
hearing a free improviser for whom early 20th Century
impressionism plays such a central part in his concept. With
jazz-based free improvisers, overworking the piano’s damper
pedal often evinces a paucity of melodic ideas. To Frank’s
credit, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. He certainly
has a clue. Ultimately, however, his work falls onto the
category of many other of Braxton’s young associates. He’s
talented, but has a ways to go.
If given a choice, I’d prefer fewer and better Braxton
records (made with mature collaborators) to the surfeit of
recordings with school-age apprentices we’ve been getting.
This is better than many if not most of those, but hardly