Imagine you’re Travis Laplante of Little Women and Ricart/Millevoi Quartet. You wake up one morning struck by the urge to contact Jeremy Viner, Matt Nelson, and Partrick Breiner — three other tenor saxophonists whose work you haven’t listened to and who you don’t know personally — and ask them if they want to form a band. You’re not sure why exactly this seems like a good idea, and you have no assurance that any of the three are going to respond, yet even with this tiny reservation, you go ahead and shoot off a round of emails, driven only by the vague feeling that you’re onto something. What this something might be you can’t really say, and even though your family are phoning around for the nearest team of men in white coats while you eagerly hold vigil with your Gmail inbox, you’re soon vindicated when all three reedsmen accept your oracular invitation. And with that, Battle Trance is born.
This, believe it or not, is a true story (well, minus the “men in white coats” jibe). As incredible as it sounds, it’s a perfect creation myth for the quartet, since their debut album moves with all the impulsivenes and unpredictability that inspired Laplante to repeatedly hit the “Send” button way back when. But it’s not only the elements of chance and intuition that its three pieces of cacophony-jazz harbor, since its wild snaking also emerges as a testament to change and impermanence in all their manifold guises.
This is why, after a misleadingly tranquil opening fanfare, “Palace of Wind I” begins careening through a fluid train of ever-shifting loops. Each sax weaves around every other in narrowing and widening circles, radiating the same hue of pregnant tension but never repeating just quite the same cyclical phrase. It’s as if each instrument is striving fervently to cling onto their respective centers of gravity, yet as the centrifugal and centripetal forces accumulate over a 13-minute span, they’re increasingly and repeatedly thrown off their axes, spinning wildly in a loss of control that, given the almost metaphysical rawness and primality of the music, implies that such a lack isn’t restricted solely to the four men responsible for its near-chaos.
This surging bedlam as well as its emphasis on change and chance is magnified by the fact that, as a unit, the three parts of Palace of Wind were through-composed by Laplante. This means two things: that its feral segments were written (although not scored) without any predetermined outline of their ultimate trajectory, and that not one of them is a repetition of any other. Consequently, each stretch of the elegiac “Palace of Wind II” is unique and irretrievable, and the floating pathos of its opening half commemorates this unavoidable transience with an alternating roundabout of horns that gradually thicken with foreboding, almost conscious of the fact that, besides being unable to guarantee their own consummation, they’re not long for this world.
And they turn out to be correct in their doomy pessimism, because after six minutes, they’re abruptly cleared away by an attack of unfriendly hee-hawing, their once-mournful striving nullified by an asthma that after less than a minute is itself annulled into a staggered call-and-response of high-pitched whistles, which in turn is then erased in favor of a stream of poignant melodies. And so on. Yet despite its nods to instability, powerlessness, frailty, mortality, and our apparent inability to stop ourselves from being whipped up into irrational frenzies by those around us, Palace of Wind’s narrative of ceaseless flux and rational impotence is undermined by its greatest strength: the rigor, intensity, and peerless coordination of its musicianship. Because for all the erratic outbursts and U-turns that structure the record, and for every one of its anti-teleological contingencies, a beacon of sense is kept alight by how the four saxophonists cohere and congeal in a way that isn’t even remotely haphazard.
At all points, their individual flutterings and flurries remain tightly wound up with each other, even if these points as a whole aren’t necessarily wound up with themselves. And whenever one sax unexpectedly deviates from its course, the others will correct themselves so as to complement whatever braying spasm or fluid requiem it happens to fall upon. And this microcosmic solidarity in the face of macrocosmic disorder is more or less to be expected, since prior to recording, Laplante, Nelson, Viner, and Breiner were locked away for five months in intensive rehearsals, cultivating the mutual sensitivity and responsiveness to each other displayed in the expanding swirls that impetuously close “Palace of Wind II,” in the contagiously gloomy heaving of “Palace of Wind I,” and in the violent punches and twists of “Palace of Wind III.” With their integration and inter-regulation, the notion that the aerial Palace of Wind is musical testimony to entropy, accident, and randomness becomes suspect, since the heated interplay that defines the album suggests that we’re perfectly capable of influencing and finding meaning in each other, even if we can’t lay claim to much control on a grander scale.
And its with this interactive to-and-fro, this ever-evolving process of interpersonal adjustment and coaxing, that Palace of Wind vouches for one kind of power at the very moment it denies another, as well as vouching for continuity while appearing to uphold its opposite. Its convulsive fits and grieving lulls may not have much faith in the lone individual’s capacity to foresee, comprehend, and guide the entire arc of his life, but they nonetheless support the idea that he can have an affect on the separate occurrences that form this life, that these aren’t solely a matter of unaccountable chance and change. Moreover, the knowledge that we can nudge events while remaining incapable of calculating where such nudges will ultimately take us is what, in the end, makes the album’s turbulent peaks so powerful and consuming. It’s also what allows us to say that, regardless of whether the mercurial Battle Trance are able to forecast where precisely they’ll be in five years time, they possess enough instinctive nous and intuitive know-how to ensure that any future music they produce along the way will be worth more than a listen or two.