Friday, September 23, 2016
Exfoliant: Battle Trance's 'Blade of Love' live
I sat there last night, in a pew at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Chelsea, listening to Battle Trance, and I kept wishing more of my friends were there. It was one of those everybody-should-hear-this moments, which I find are pretty rare, even when I'm seeing music that I'm enjoying immensely. Often, there's this dual sense of both loving a show and realizing that some element of – extreme volume, say, or prolonged abstraction — might serve as superficial turn-off to some listeners.
There's something about Battle Trance, though, that feels universal, or, if no music or can truly be that, it at least feels unusually broad in its ability to hit a listener somewhere primal, accessing a part of the sound-and-spirit-receiving mechanism that would seem to be fundamental but that doesn't get engaged with all that often. The group — a four-tenor-saxophone ensemble led by Travis Laplante — dispenses with all obvious trappings of musical style, while at the same time evoking in mood and sensation the essences of many styles (gospel and noise are two I'd throw out as examples) in a way that feels intensely right and natural to me. As though the musical and experiential event that is a Battle Trance performance was waiting there all along for someone to get into the right headspace to enact it.
It doesn't surprise me that that someone is Travis Laplante, who is, incidentally, a friend of mine. Ever since Travis first came on my musical and social radar about a decade ago, as one fourth of the raw, revelatory Little Women, there's been a sense that he's been operating an unusually high-stakes enterprise, fueled by a sturdy, built-for-the-long-haul union of strict discipline and soulful poetry. I'm lucky to know a few people like this, artists whose practice not only invites but demands the As Serious as Your Life tag bestowed by the great Val Wilmer on the jazz radicals she set out to document.
But if the mood of Little Women felt sinister, even downright infernal, Battle Trance seems to concern itself with the other side of the coin. Seeing them in a church last night almost felt redundant, because they render sacred any space they perform in. Battle Trance makes records, great ones — last night's show was a release party for the new Blade of Love, which the group played in full, according to their well-established M.O. — but it says more about my life right now than it does about the contents of Blade (or of any other recording, for that matter) that I've had trouble finding the time and space to really get there with it, and by get there, I mean, I guess, really surrender to it.
I wrote above of Travis Laplante's high stakes, and I part of what I meant is that he's an artist who always seems to be going after the transportive experience, both for himself and for the listener. He also works in the healing arts, and the parallels between these two areas of his work are so obvious that maybe there's no distinction between them. (See Brad Cohan's excellent Observer feature on the group for more on this.) The message I get from Battle Trance, from the way the group begins and ends its concerts with sort of silent, eyes-closed meditation, is one of surrender. (See Travis's announcement re: Blade of Love on his website, which begins: "It is with joy and intense vulnerability …") Again, the experience is like entering a church: Don't just silence your cell phone — a phrase that has become ever more profound as the years go by and the task of truly shutting down one's "information addiction"/"distraction sickness", even for a moment, has become more and more of a challenge — silence the part of yourself that wants either your body or your senses, or both, to be anywhere else but exactly where you are.
Being fully acoustic and literally made from breath, Battle Trance's music feels therapeutic in the sense of a deep engagement with nature. The saxophone, the vehicle of the band's sound-and-spirit-making, seems both essential and incidental. Essential because on a basic level, the group's work is an inquiry into that instrument's vast sonic potential; incidental because Battle Trance seems to tap into an experience, a ritual that seems somehow ancient, or at least way older than the roughly 170 years the saxophone has been around.
When I say Battle Trance feels therapeutic, I mean that I consider their shows to be healing experiences, but that's not the same as saying these performances feel in some way mild. Blade of Love begins with sustained overlapping tones, staggered so that one player ceasing breath just as another player is beginning, almost like a four-person simulation of the sound of the bagpipes. Air bounces around inside metal to create this mighty sort of sonic friction. The strength of the sound is startling, abrasive — like cold water splashed on the listener's face.
Then a choral effect, notes sung softly into the horn, leading into one of the group's sonic trademarks, a lilting melody played in a kind of round, with three of the players — in this case Jeremy Viner, Matt Nelson and Patrick Breiner — setting up a musical foundation for the fourth, in this case Laplante, to testify over. This particular episode, which comes about 5:30 into the first track on the album, felt particularly righteous in the live setting last night, as though I were watching a great gospel singer belt over three expert backing singers. This section sets the stage for one of the piece's climactic moments: a series of unison staccato blasts from all four players — harking back to Little Women's relentless, stabbing noise-jazz attack — that ends the piece's first movement.
One effect of the group's openhearted, unabashedly spiritual bent is that these sounds, these textures, all points on the spectrum of so-called extremity and mildness, seem to become one. The violent passages soothe; the tender passages sear. The weight of breath, whether expressed as whistling, hissing, murmuring or shouting, becomes a steady, constant fact or truth, as the music gradually attains lift-off, escapes the mundane, and that quality of ancient-ness takes over. These bold, thematic episodes that emerge — another gradually comes into focus around 2:00 into Blade of Love's second movement — these fundamental arrangements of sturdy repeated background figure and emotive, yearning, writhing foreground melody, the feeling dripping from the music like sweat, bring to mind all kinds of anachronistic but somehow wholly logical scenarios, like Otis Redding singing his heart out at Stonehenge.
Blade of Love's third movement begins in blatantly choral fashion, the saxophones used to transmit rather than amplify breath. Building to a place of heightened energy, again that mighty friction, where I imagine the sound, the breath inside each horn as a physical mass, ricocheting ever faster against the walls, creating a prismatic blur, a shimmer of sonic activity, a steely whine and whir, a visual and tactile event as much as a sonic one, made out of metal and breath. A ritual incantation, the kind that in the live setting makes the players seem like mere vessels for a practice much older than themselves.
Great live music is escape, not just being removed from an environment, a state of mind, a set of concerns, but being ushered somewhere else, a heightened place where you can live for a while. Battle Trance seems to me like a band entirely devoted to achieving this effect, within itself, first, and then within its listeners. In his review of Blade of Love in the September edition of the The New York City Jazz Record, Phil Freeman refers to the sensation of "emerging as after a full-immersion baptism." I'd plus-one that thought, and tack on the notion of leaving a Battle Trance show feeling exfoliated, scrubbed clean — raw but renewed. Of having undergone some kind of overhaul you didn't even realize you desperately needed. The group's music sounds incredible, sure. But what struck me again last night, seeing the band for the first time in two years, is that it feels even better.