There is one core question at the heart of the Battle Trance project: just how much can a tenor saxophone accomplish sonically? Brooklyn-based saxophonist and composer Travis Laplante must have thought the instrument infinitely capable when he brought together, as if by divine revelation, the three other saxophonists with whom he performs as Battle Trance. These four men—Laplante, Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson, and Jeremy Viner—came together on 2014’s Palace of Wind, already one of the great avant-garde albums of the decade. On that album, Battle Trance takes a single instrument and wrings out from it an almost impossible cornucopia of sounds.
The fad of the saxophone quartet began in Europe during the early 20th-century classical scene. But it was in 1970s America that startling new concepts for all-saxophone groups started to appear with regularity. Often the players ignored the standard configuration of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes. In 1977, Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell put together an all-alto sax quartet to perform his ferocious, atonal piece “Nonaah.” Around the same time, bands such as Rova and the World Saxophone Quartet were using the instrument’s swing legacy to craft styles that could slip between jazz and classical categories.
To me, the blade in Blade of Love comes to fruition about halfway through the album, seven minutes into its second movement: clenched jaws spit out tight upper partials then morph them into shimmering and dense multi-phonics that develop into a tense, steady cacophony. The four saxophonists (Travis Laplante, Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner) fill out their tones, allowing lower harmonics through while upper partials rub and split apart, slicing the inner ear. Acoustically, the saxophone has a special access to acts of aural punishment.
Nobody who's been paying attention to me the last few years (does such a beautiful soul even exist in this dreary old world?) is going to be surprised that I think Battle Trance's new album Blade of Love is the hot grease. The New York tenor sax quartet's 2014 debut Palace of Wind, and the performance I saw of that album's titular piece around the time of its release, were easily among my favorites of that year, their uncanny meeting of howl-at-the-moon blurt and scientific precision being just the thing to really burn a hole in this ol' cortex. Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, Patrick Breiner, and bandleader Travis Laplante have adapted and refined a litany of extended techniques, cribbed from post-Cage composition and free jazz, into something all but undeniable, making something surprisingly accessible and powerful out of tools which could easily lapse into meandering abstraction in other hands/mouths.