Braxton-Jenkins-Smith: A Trio Lives On
by Seth Colter Walls | January 5, 2014
Saxophonist Anthony Braxton, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and violinist Leroy Jenkins each saw additions to their respective discographies in 2013. (The most unexpected was the release associated with a Jenkins group, the Revolutionary Ensemble, given the violinist's death in 2007. But we'll take it!) Given the richness of these recent albums, it's as good a time as any to reflect on these musicians' past partnership in a trio that was known, simply, as Braxton-Jenkins-Smith.
After first playing together in Chicago's late-1960s south side scene, the group's debut recording, 3 Compositions of New Jazz, was issued under Braxton's name on the Delmark label in 1968. (Sadly, it's not currently available digitally.) Shortly thereafter, the trio headed off to Paris, where they also played with Chicago-scene percussionist Steve McCall in a quartet. Their subsequent album, sporting the unwieldy title B-Xo/ N-O-1-47A, was recorded in Paris and released in 1970 on the BYG Actuel label.
The title track from that LP kicks off the playlist attached to this post and shows what the group was up to while abroad in '69: In the opening minutes of our excerpt, clouds of scratchy, extended technique sounds -- never super-intense in the traditional "high energy" free-jazz mode -- feel as if derived from John Cage's chance-based classical experiments. (The scholar and musician George Lewis has described the attack of Braxton-Jenkins-Smith as "connected with pan European high-culture" musical modernism.) In the fifth minute of this excerpt, Braxton offers a thrilling sequence of solo sax riffology; gradually, the trumpeter and violinist join in, lending the proceedings a climactic air. In the final minute, the core Braxton-Jenkins-Smith trio unites behind the theme of a jaunty, early Braxton piece, "Composition 6G." Hot stuff!
The group also recorded a lengthy Jenkins composition, "Off the Top of My Head," in 1969, as part of the album Silence, which eventually received digital distribution alongside a later Braxton session. (Both halves of that reissue are confusingly attributed to Braxton and another musician, Richard Teitelbaum -- but trust us, the half that we're using is pure Braxton-Jenkins-Smith.)
On "Off the Top of My Head," you can hear the Jenkins compositional voice right away: An individual voice (like the composer's own violin) may have tendrils of association with gospel or blues licks, while the collective maintains an unmistakable freeness regarding harmony. There's space in this abstract music, which, at certain points, may amount to an open invitation for some harmonica playing (paired with, say, Braxton's more abstract mouthpiece vocalizations). And for completeness' sake, we've made room in our mix for the title cut from that 1970 LP, too. (Speaking of John Cage, the influence of "4'33"" is hard to miss in this band's version of "Silence.")
Between these three important Braxton-Jenkins-Smith jams, we've constructed this playlist with help from recent albums by the three instrumentalists -- the better to help you get a handle on their respective legacies. The large-ensemble Echo Echo Mirror House album finds Braxton in a much denser experimental setting, while the 2013 reissue of the saxophonist's Parallactic 54 (Sextet) album gives us a hint of what Braxton's music sounded like in 2003, around the time of his "Composition No. 313" (quite a way down the road from "Composition 6G"!). Meantime, Twine Forest is just the latest killer release in Smith's eighth decade: This time, we hear him in a thrilling duo setting, along with the younger pianist Angelica Sanchez. Finally, Counterparts - Live offers up to posterity the final 2005 performance by Jenkins' Revolutionary Ensemble. So click play on our mix, and get wise to each man's inspiring catalog of music.