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Anthony Braxton & William Parker : Saying It With Words

Two virtuosos enlist the aid of vocalists in the service of their compositional, improvisational, and lyrical aspirations. To say the results vary wildly would be an understatement bordering on deceit. Parker's project is a relatively pleasant diversion which suffers mostly as a result of his absence on nine of the record's fifteen tracks (although all music and words are credited to him). Braxton's blunder, however, was his choice of an utterly soulless, uncharismatic Wesleyan University twit to intone tepid sociocultural criticism in a thoroughly annoying manner over a shifting terrain of alternating reed instruments.

For Song Cycle (Boxholder), Parker went the safe route and recruited veterans of the New York scene, all with lengthy resumes, for his series of songs, each of which, according to his liner notes, is dedicated to "someone or something that has inspired me to do my best as both a musician and as a human being". As you might expect, the offerings here, recorded in 1991 and 1993, exude an elegiac wistfulness that is sometimes cloying, but the strengths of the participating talents are able to overcome and redirect the more syrupy moments. Ellen Christi and William Parker are not strangers to one another, having shared many a stage and studio project including time spent with the Jemeel Moondoc Sextet. Here, Christi wraps her quasi-operatic phrases (wordless and otherwise) around Parker's sinewy bass muscle. Parker, unsurprisingly, sounds marvelous. His superb sense of melody and timing are very much in evidence, especially during the coda of "Hunkpapa Song" and the ecstatic heights and solemn depths of his arco workout on "A Thought For Silence" (which Christi blankets with orgasmic cries, gasps, and wails interspersed with Diamanda Galas-like ululations). The balance of the record is devoted to duets by vocalist and long- standing Parker collaborator Lisa Sokolov (Little Huey Orchestra, Christi's Menage) and pianist Yuko Fujiyama, who played with the One World Ensemble and is a bandleader in her own right. Some of these are smoky, traditional-sounding ballads which would not be out of place on a Sarah Vaughan recording; others veer dangerously close to a sort of soporific New Age lounge act. Song Cycle isn't going to blow the lid off the instrument/voice duo concept, but for fans of the artists there may be enough aural gems to seduce the ear.

Busy reedman Braxton touts his endeavor, Four Compositions (Duets) 2000 (CIMP) as an interdisciplinary "action experience". His typically oblique accompanying notes confidently, and with much overreaching, attempt to place this collaboration within some sort of significant cultural context. He likens it to an "old fashion vaudeville duo for the adults and children"; he dedicates each composition to a "Master Comedian" (Jonathan WInters, Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Flip Wilson); he throws out references to John Cage, Mingus, Sun Ra, and Ken Nordine; he speaks of "[continuing] the use of real time extraction strategies that have long defined interactive theater possibilities" within the "comedic tradition of the last one hundred years". He blows extended clusters of boiling notes on alto and soprano sax; he waxes pensive on clarinet and contrabass clarinet. But he still can't obscure the excruciating reality of Alex Horwitz's addle-pated contributions to this misguided undertaking. Even Bob Rusch's fawning liner notes, after admitting his initial skepticism, can only offer vague and unconvincing words of praise.

Humor and jazz (or any improvised music) are not strange bedfellows. Many artists (albeit with some controversy) exploited the comedic potential of the music as a performative language: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Slim Gaillard, Roland Kirk, the list goes on. But if this is supposed to be some brave new juxtaposition of two artistic forms, there is one glaring weakness: Horwitz is not in the least bit funny. He riffs on advertising slogans in a tired and derivative manner (his bit about the US Army's recruiting techniques is an outright plagiarism); he reads copy from the New York Post, tacking on insipid one-liners and asides; he reads the Federalist Papers and a book on Freudian theory simultaneously in an attempt to emulate a Burroughs/Gysin cut-up; he stumbles on words from the text he is reading and clumsily attempts to turn it into some kind of improvisational hairpin curve. If I want trenchant observations on the dehumanizing and banal aspects of postmodern consumer culture and celebrity obsession, I'll pick up a Don DeLillo novel. Listening to Horwitz's grating, self-righteous voice with its cumbersome and clueless sense of oh-so-world-weary irony is just an empty exercise. Even if you listen to Rusch's advice to "[divorce yourself] from the language of the words and listen instead to the music of the words", the attempt falls flat. There just isn't a lot of music going on in his vapid, undynamic delivery. Seventy-four minutes of Braxton wearing out reeds while Horwitz pissed in a bucket would have achieved the same effect. Don't waste your time.