The saxophone quartet Battle Trance started as a pretty out-there musical prospect and have stayed there for three full-length releases. In other words, they’re no gimmick. An intense cross-section of jazz, avant-garde, and chamber music, they are yet another vehicle designed to carry out ideas brought forth by the restlessly prolific Travis Laplante. Their first album, Palace of Wind, was quite the windy affair, using their horns as vessels equally for airy, staticky noises and music. Of their second record, Blade of Love, Brice Ezell of PopMatters said, “rarely has the economy of instrumentation and composition been used to such compelling effect”.
Green of Winter goes further down the rabbit hole of abstraction, minimalism, impressionism, what have you. One can’t zero in on just one of these traits since they’re all equally important. If a holistic approach is the best approach to Green of Winter, then Laplante is meeting us halfway there with three numerically titled tracks spanning 46 minutes. That’s right; you can’t take this in piecemeal. As was the case with Palace of Wind and Blade of Love, it’s all about the whole enchilada.
The composition of Green of Winter took shape during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. Putting safety measures in place, Laplante gathered his fellow tenor players Patrick Breiner, Matthew Nelson, and Jeremy Viner in Vermont for 20 days of rehearsal and one day of recording in a barn. That Green of Winter doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a professional studio works to its credit. The warmth of four tenor saxophones and the echo provided by wood goes a long way in wringing a memorable product out of a highly unique ensemble. From its eeriest passages to its deepest harmonies, Green of Winter captures the listener no matter their inclination. Like the sound of black holes raised 57 octaves, this is music you won’t shove into the background because you can’t.
One of the most surprising moments of Green of Winter comes first. The starting movement, over 23 minutes long, spends the first four minutes and 38 seconds of its existence brewing strange noises. It turns out that getting four tenor saxophones together and asking them to make soft vibrato sounds creates quite a creepy atmosphere. The ghostly warbles eventually mutate into a soft bed of noise that sounds like a sampler from the early 1980s. That’s when a melody asserts itself for the first time, picking up harmonies from the other saxophones as it rolls along. The music sways forth like a lazy waltz with legato tones laying it on nice and thick. Then it becomes a march, complete with staccato rhythms. If Battle Trance haven’t snagged your attention by this point, then the problem is with you because this is where everything starts to blend into a dizzying miasma. The waltz, the trills, the rubato, it all becomes a swirling concoction that could be the ideal soundtrack to losing one’s mind.
The first movement travels through many highs and lows in its second half, giving the listener dense patches of scrambled notes to prop up the soaring passages. The second movement plays it safer at the start, dividing the quartet into a simple lead and accompaniment format. Then, the music grows quieter as the arrangement begins dropping parts before the quartet begins grasping at a series of increasingly softer tones, with the tempo ebbing just a little more each time. It’s as if Debussy were nodding off while writing their arrangements. Oddly enough, their way out of this precarious moment is to play the melody in unison. Hardly an intuitive move.
The unrest gathering towards the end of the second movement feeds directly into the feeling of vertigo that begins the third movement. Here, the rolling triplets of Battle Trance’s sound, a thing that should sound sluggish and messy in execution, are performed with such precision that it’s almost frightening. By the time they flutter just fractions of notes in time with one another, they easily pass for tuned percussion. That’s when someone, perhaps Laplante, begins to use their saxophone like a wind-powered rainstick crossed with a snake. The album concludes with the members singing three chords over and over as they clack the keys of their instruments.
The press release from New Amsterdam Records keeps referring to Battle Trance’s output as some sort of intentional trilogy. Whether this means there will be no more Battle Trance releases or if it’s just the end of a certain era, they do not say. If Green of Winter is the last Battle Trance recording, they certainly went out in style. If they continue to push the limits of what a saxophone quartet can do, they will have to come up with new boundaries to push. While there are many musically beautiful moments in Green of Winter, there are plenty of moments where it’s hard to believe four tenor saxophones are making the sounds. That alone is worth the admission price, and Laplante’s compositional knack is the gravy.