If the combination of jazz and theater is rare, then the combination of avant-garde jazz and theatre is on the endangered species list. With the notable exception of Carla Bley and Paul Haine's Escalator over the Hill, there are few recorded examples of avant-garde jazz artists who have created specific pieces that incorporate theater into their work. Bucking that trend are two newly issued projects by Amiri Baraka and Anthony Braxton that could just as easily be filed under "spoken word" as in the jazz bins.
If you associate Anthony Braxton primarily with his classic '80s quartet, playing alongside the roaring percussionist Gerry Hemingway, bassist Mark Dresser, and the discordant piano work of Marilyn Crispell, Trillium R will probably come as a shock. Besides being his first foray into opera (as well as his largest project to date), the actual music in Trillium R is relegated to subdued background status. Instead the poetic and philosophical side of Braxton comes to the fore and defines the trajectory of the record's sound, with the primary flow of each of the four acts dramatizing scenes drawn from contemporary life. Each act contains a quotidian story line (conflicts between employers and employees, parents and children, insiders and outsiders) that is intended to be appreciated on three levels simultaneously: the apparent story, the mystery spirit underlying it, and metaphysical overtones. These are only the first acts of what eventually will become twelve separate three-act operas, a monumental project whose end goal is nothing less than to outline life in all its fine detail. Easy listening? Hardly. Those at all interested in keeping up to date with Braxton's current research continue to have their work cut out for them. Yet Trillium R coheres as an absorbing work and a rare peek into Braxton's nonmusical muse.
The Black Mass, recorded and originally released in a miniscule edition in 1968, features a text by Amiri Baraka coupled with rather minimal musical accompaniment by Sun Ra's Myth-Science Arkestra. Baraka's text is roughly based on the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad's story of Yacub, the mad black scientist who created the white race in an act of hubris. In Baraka's version the white race becomes a metaphor for a creative impulse gone awry, one that leads to the formation of evil and a violation of the spirit of the black aesthetic.
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In hindsight The Black Mass could too easily be dismissed as a clichéd combination of black-power rhetoric ("This whiteness spreads itself without effort -- for the thing is sexless, it cannot breathe!") and free-jazz clatter. While it plays upon familiar elements, however, it has lost none of its power through the years. Baraka pulls no punches as the Arkestra spikes his pronouncements with rhythmic salvos; on display is all of the anger and spite that many in the black arts movement of the '60s felt toward what they perceived as a hopelessly white-bread establishment. Despite the at-times histrionic acting, this set remains a unique historical document of a time and politics too easily forgotten.