Improvisation for all

Friday, June 19, 2015

David Weininger writes about Battle Trance's performance for The Boston Globe:

Travis Laplante was 10 when he made what would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of his life. He was a fourth-grader in Woodstock, Vt., and it was time to choose an instrument to play in the school band. He didn’t know what he wanted to play, though he’d thought about the drums since that was obviously the coolest option. So he asked his mother — not, as far as he knew, a terribly musical person.

“I remember her looking at me in the eyes and saying, ‘You know, Travis, I just really love the saxophone,’ ” Laplante says in a phone conversation. “There was something about that — I can’t really talk about it in terms of logic, but I said, OK, Mom, I’m going to play the saxophone.”

It turned out to be an auspicious choice, since Laplante, 32, has built a career as a tenor saxophonist whose musical acuity encompasses both avant-garde classical compositions and free jazz. Yet he seems to move forward, open up new projects, less by conscious choice than by a kind of intuition — almost as if someone else were making the decision through him.

Take the formation of Battle Trance, the saxophone quartet that will be performing at the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Brattleboro on Friday. Late in 2012, Laplante was working a part-time job when he had what he calls “this very strong feeling” that he had to form a band with three other tenor players: Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner.

A quartet of tenor saxophonists would be unusual enough, but for Laplante it wasn’t about the specific instrumentation — it was those three people. This despite the fact that while he “sort of” knew Breiner from New School University, which they had both attended, he had met the other two only in passing. He had no idea what they were like or what their musical proclivities were. But they were, unquestionably, the guys for the band.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Laplante says, laughing, when the basic outlines of this unlikely scenario are repeated back to him. Even he didn’t seem to quite believe it. “There was a side of me that was like, You’ve got to be kidding me – a quartet of tenor saxophones? I’d never thought of that before. It was quite . . . unusual.”

But when he tracked down the other three by e-mail and told them what he wanted to do, they all responded quickly and affirmatively. When they first got together, Laplante didn’t have any music written, nor did he even know precisely what he wanted the band to do.

“I just wanted to get everyone in the room and see what would happen,” he says. “And we ended up mostly talking, getting to know each other, but in a very intimate, vulnerable way where I wanted to express to them what matters to me, in life and in music, and to just have an open conversation to make sure that that resonance, that feeling I had at work, was really true.”

That rehearsal ended with the four of them holding a unison B-flat, the lowest note on the instrument, “for I don’t know how long. A half-hour, maybe 45 minutes. Just to really be together, in sound.” Not long after that, Laplante began writing “Palace of Wind,” the 45-minute work that pretty much forms the entirety of Battle Trance’s repertoire.

Or, as he puts it, “the piece started writing itself.” Almost nothing was written down; Laplante transmitted the music orally to the other three musicians, who memorized it. (A notated score was prepared later.) It was, Laplante says, “the most effortless process I’ve had writing music. . . . It felt like we were on completely fertile ground, and that there was this freshness, or this innocence, to almost everything we were playing.”

“Effortless” is not the word that comes to mind when listening to “Palace of Wind.” The work’s technical and expressive range is astounding: eerie chords with multiphonics, driving repeated notes, screaming melodic lines, and gripping moments of calm. The waves of sound are relentless, as there are almost no breaks in the piece even for the saxophonists to grab a breath; they use a technique known as circular breathing to sustain the piece over its duration.

It may sound forbidding, but when “Palace of Wind” was released last year on the New Amsterdam label, it won a host of plaudits, including mentions for best album of the year. One of the most insightful reviews came from Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller, who wrote about the disc for the music website The Talkhouse ( “[T]his is Battle Trance’s first album and they are definitely onto something. . . . There is so much energy here. The newness of ‘Palace of Wind’ lies in the order and structure that contains that energy, and allows it to burst forth into your mind’s sky.”

In addition to performing “Palace of Wind,” Battle Trance will also work with musicians in Yellow Barn’s Young Artists Program on improvisation. It’s tempting to view this as a different side of Laplante’s artistic persona, one that runs through free jazz and the later John Coltrane records he devoured as a teenager. “But the fact is, I believe that everyone is born an improviser,” he says. “That’s something that as we go along in life sometimes gets a little bit closed off.” Part of what he wants to do with the students is “to relieve a certain fear that seems to have been instilled upon many classically trained musicians,” who view improvisation as foreign ground.

“A lot of it is equally about unlearning certain things,” he continues. “Like right now, as a musician, I feel like I have to unlearn as many things as I have to learn — actually undo particular conditioning and habits that I have, particular patterns of my mind, when improvising or playing music in general. So I’m hoping that some of that can be passed on — that it’s actually possible to play your dream. That is possible.”