Anthony Braxton's ZIM Sextet go exploring at Cafe OTO

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 Braxton

With the death of Cecil Taylor a few weeks ago we lost one of the great explorers of the borderland between freeform jazz and new music – an experimental "polar region", in the words of the writer Alex Ross, where distinctions blur and "works of classical, jazz, or rock descent can sound more like one another than like their parent genres." I never got to see Taylor perform live and, as the tributes flood in – from Ross, the pianist Alexander Hawkins (in the June issue of Jazzwise) and many others – I regret that more and more. So I certainly wasn't going to let this rare UK appearance from Anthony Braxton, another legendary polar explorer, slip away.

Like Taylor, Braxton is a controversial figure. His opus includes many pieces that listeners have found challenging to the point of alienating, including compositions for 100 tubas and four orchestras. Appreciating him can feel like an exclusive club and the final night of this Cafe OTO residency for Braxton and his ZIM Sextet attracted a fair few hostile, performative listeners, nodding their heads as if to say: "I understand this on a deeper level than you ever will."

There was nothing hostile about the music though. Even at its most abstract, it felt open and enquiring – as gentle-spirited as Braxton himself. Playing for just over an hour, the group juxtaposed boiling climaxes with passages of sparse instrumental muttering. Angular melodies ping-ponged around the ensemble. Jacqueline Kerrod and Miriam Overlach stirred-up shimmering clouds of notes and scraped the strings of their harps with wood blocks and table knives. Violinist Jean Cook stitched folky fragments. Adam Matlock added vocal groans and weedling accordion lines, playfully contrasted with the rumbling of Dan Peck's tuba. And Taylor Ho Bynum experimented with a collection of mutes, trading blasts with Braxton in the biggest moments and once mimicking the sound of birdsong by blowing on the bottom of his cornet valves. Switching between alto, soprano and toy-like sopranino saxophones, the composer played sweet melodic phrases that could have been clipped from songbook ballads and followed them up with deranged flurries – the flight of the bumblebee with a broken wing.

Sometimes the music resembled a seascape, with Braxton directing ensemble swells and undulating dynamics. Gesturing with his palm as the light gleamed off the surface of his spectacles, he looked like a high priest giving the group his blessing. They wound up in the middle of nowhere. Ho Bynum's trombone evoked the gentle roar of a distant motorway. Braxton directed two ensemble hits and then rummaged in a plastic wallet for a piece of paper. Another tune? It was a list of people to thank – greeted by one of the biggest receptions I've ever heard at Cafe OTO. Credit where it's due: performative listeners are good at applause.

Afterwards, I spoke to harpist Jacqueline Kerrod who showed me some of the music the group use. A lot of what they play is freely improvised, but they also follow graphic scores (works of art in themselves) covered in brightly coloured lollypop symbols and cryptic squiggles, indicating dynamics and intensity. They use some standard notation as well, Kerrod explained, pointing to a sheet covered in dense clusters of semiquavers – the sort of thing musicians refer to as "fly shit". "It's completely unplayable," she laughed, "but the point is to follow the shapes and just do your best."

Follow the shapes and do your best. That's good advice for listeners looking for a way into Braxton's music too.

Thomas Rees
– Photo by Dawid Laskowski