As part of one the best booked periods at a New York club in recent memory, a smoke-free Tonic played host to this outwardly wonderful duo. Following the ICP and preceding Derek Bailey, Dave Burrell and Evan Parker's trio, progressively soulful trumpeter/flugelhornist Wadada Leo Smith was given a high profile weekend stint, playing on a Friday with electronica wizardress Ikue Mori and and Saturday with fellow AACM and Creative Construction Company alumnus Anthony Braxton.
The newly shorn Smith, who cuts quite a different figure without his magnificent locks, is a good foil to the rumpled professorism of Anthony Braxton. The saxophonist's live appearances in New York are few; this was the first since his triumphant solo performance at the New York Society for Ethical Culture last summer. The name value of this duo was enough to bring out the crowds, including (what is always a nice gesture) musicians like Andrew Cyrille, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins and Ted Daniel. Audience members joked that all the musicians in the audience should be packed into a cab for quite a recording session.
This reviewer was only able to make it for the second set. Reports state that the first set stuck more to compositions and while lacking fire, did come off as more cohesive. The second set, three improvisations, each that got shorter (~35 minutes, 20 minutes, 7 minutes), had moments that excited with their energy and frustrated with their aimlessness.
A commentary that was overheard after the show seems very apt: it is great that musicians of Smith and Braxton's caliber exist; it is good that they continue to innovate and to work together; it is heartening that people come out in droves to see shows like this, full of the promise of unique and unduplicatable music. However, that does not necessarily mean that one is going to like it.
The finest moments of the set were found when both players coalesced within the techniques thatthey are known for: Smith's slightly ragged long tones complementing Braxton's algebraic sputtering nicely (in this case on alto, C-melody, soprano and sopranino). Even better were the scenes out of "Trading Places", when it was Smith spewing harsh staccato lines to Braxton's mournful accompaniment.
Problem was that these moments ebbed and flowed inconsistently. Just when it figured the two would ride a wave forward for a good while, the momentum would fall apart and leave the two gasping for breath on the beach, until being swept away again.
Nevertheless, the feeling is that this was not a lack of inspiration. Two improvisatory giants like Braxton and Smith are not beholden to a muse. This may be have been a deliberate concept, much like the intensely intellectual if not particularly stimulating English bug music of the late '60s. There is something to be said for varying the energy level of one's music ... too much of anything can get tedious. The crowd, filled with lots of people not seen at shows before (normally, improv shows draw out the same 10-20 jokers), loved it and hooted and yelped when it was over, maybe not the proper reaction. I think a round of hesitant applause may have been more appropriate.
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