Battle Trance: Blade of Love
New Amsterdam Records

At first glance, Battle Trance would appear to be carrying on the tradition associated with the World Saxophone Quartet, Prism Quartet, and Rova Saxophone Quartet—with one key difference: in contrast to the standard double alto, tenor, and baritone configuration of those outfits, a set-up that transplants the string quartet's double violin, viola, and cello structure into a jazz context, Battle Trance features four tenor saxophonists. Comprised of leader Travis Laplante, Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson, and Jeremy Viner, the group came together in 2012 and two years later issued its debut album Palace of Wind.

With four tenors involved, one might begin to imagine Blade of Love, the group's sophomore effort, will be a fiery free-for-all, a primal blowing session where each tries to outduel the other. Yet while there are occasional moments of ferocity, it's hardly the focus of the three-part, forty-minute piece Laplante composed for the group, and, in fact, as many minutes are dedicated to quieter passages as high-decibel ones. But dynamic contrasts aren't really what the album's about either: the central concept has to do with the connection between the saxophone and the human body, and to that end Battle Trance deploys a variety of extended techniques to further the range of sounds typically associated with the instrument. It's important to stress, too, that for Laplante and company, it's the composition that matters, not grandstanding by individual soloists.

The quartet spent two years of rehearsal time developing the techniques heard on the album before recording it in a wooden room in the Vermont forest; by way of example, one of them involved singing through the saxophone and using the instrument's keys to adjust the timbre of the voice. Among the sounds that Laplante envisioned for the piece were “arrows flying through the air, birds singing or flying overhead, bombs, water running, the wind, campfires, singing in church, ... thunder, the sound of rage, howling, crying, laughing”—in other words, a range of human and non-human experience so vast it verges on encyclopedic.

Close attention is needed to appreciate what the four are doing at any given time. During the opening part, for example, the four enter with full-throated expressions, each adhering to single pitches and contributing to the collective mass. Three minutes along, however, the sax sounds abruptly cease and the spotlight briefly shifts to wordless vocal mumuring until one saxophone voice returns and then another, until all four are again following a common trajectory. At that point, one player breaks out with a plaintive lead line full of bluesy, heartfelt expressiveness, the others gathering in exuberant support behind him. The four dial it down for a peaceful, contemplative interlude before the journey resumes, this time spiraling madly at high velocity and pitched at maximum volume.

Part two, the most experimental and explorative of the three, opens with simulated wind sounds, the players presumably whistling through their horns, and vocal smears, before the saxes enter with bluesy supplications and anguished squawks and convulsions. High-pitched glissando effects find the four rising and falling as if hovering high above the earth and moving in slow motion. Part three continues without pause, the mood this time mournful as the players present delicate rounds of wordless chants until a lone sax emerges to reinforce the quietly reverential tone. By the time you reach the end of this fine recording, you'll probably conclude that, at least in one sense, the distance separating Battle Trance from, say, the World Saxophone Quartet turns out to be smaller than expected, given the degree to which the former's members exploit the tenor's pitch potential. Under blindfold conditions, most listeners, I'm guessing, would think that the instruments as presented would include baritone as well as tenor, and quite possibly alto and even soprano, too.

October 2016