How Four-Tenor Sax Quartet Battle Trance Heals With the Power of Music

Battle Trance.

Battle Trance.

As their band name suggests, Battle Trance—a spiritually-intense, shapeshifting unit led by Vermont/Brooklyn hornsmith Travis Laplante and featuring a unique set-up of four tenor saxophones—wrestle with glorious wads of tonality, rhythm, drone, ambience and dissonance while inducing the listener into spiritual unity and ecstatic peace.

That ethos, ingrained in the jazz realm by avant-garde jazz titan Albert Ayler’s preaching that “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe,” is something Laplante takes to heart, combining music and events from his own life. In his mid-20s, the saxophonist conquered a serious bout of vertigo with life-changing acupuncture that led him on a path to becoming a certified Qigong healer.

From there, Laplante has seen those two worlds intersect—music and his practice of Qigong—as a singular holy being.

It’s no wonder Laplante and his Battle Trance brothers-in-tenor—Matt Nelson, Jeremy Viner and Patrick Breiner—have been enrapturing audiences with their emotionally gut-wrenching recordings and live performances, beginning with Palace of Wind, the group’s 2014 debut, and their just-released second effort, Blade of Love.

Like its predecessor, the three-movement sonic journey Blade of Love is a cathartic exercise where elements of jazz, classical, chamber music and even metal (an obsession of Laplante’s) are inflected in Battle Trance’s aesthetics but ultimately it’s an unclassifiable beautiful noise.

Sure, Laplante and his bandmates are stalwarts of Brooklyn’s underground avant-jazz scene (Laplante has played with fellow luminaries, trumpeter Peter Evans, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith and in punk-jazz quartet Little Women while Nelson is a ubiquitous presence) but despite that pedigree, they don’t fit neatly into any jazz niche. Laplante and company employ the drone’iest of reeds interplay, grunts, chants, singing, mouthpiece thwacking and circular-breathing for a not-of-this-earth hybrid that is hypnotic, soul healing, meditation and religious ritual.

The Observer spoke to Laplante from Vermont where he traced his beginnings, his affinity for metal, combating vertigo, his idea for a four-sax band and more.

You split time between Vermont and Brooklyn. How has living in Vermont informed your saxophone playing?

We’re up on a mountain and I’ve been practicing the saxophone outdoors a lot. I grew up in mid-Vermont and we had this old college professor who lived up the road from us who would complain if I played outside so I wasn’t able to. So I’m getting back to something that I skipped over as a kid, just playing outdoors. It sounds really simple but just playing out, on the earth, playing at a space that’s truly alive where there’s the wind, birds and all sorts of movement happening, it’s really inspiring.

Did being amongst that nature contribute to the vibe of Blade of Love?

It definitely did. I wrote a good chunk of it from Vermont. There was something that felt more solitary, I suppose, in the writing. I did feel like I was removed from the sound and the noise of New York. At the same time, I feel bringing into my own consciousness just a basic deeper relationship with my surroundings and with nature is something that is playing a greater part in my music.

It was something growing up where I had this, almost negative connotation, of people who would connect with nature like, “Oh, you know, they’re hippies.” There’s something about it that I was a little bit allergic to and I’m just realizing now that I really missed out on a lot when I grew up in Vermont. I had to go across this covered bridge to go to school every day because I grew up on a dirt road. I would be annoyed because there were people in the bridge taking photos and taking pictures of the trees during the foliage and I was really annoyed. Granted, I was a teenager.

Now after being in the city full-time for 14 years and going back to that, I’m starting to get something that I didn’t get.

Battle Trance.

Battle Trance.

Both Blade of Love and Palace of Wind are comprised of three movements that I imagine would require super-intensive rehearsals before you guys hit a studio, record it and play the entire piece on tour. 

We rehearsed for about a year before we recorded it. The process behind it felt much more rigorous than the first one and the whole process of writing the piece felt much more involved and kind of torturous in a way.

I felt with Palace of Wind, everything just happened effortlessly. I had this particular innocence about the whole thing and it was new and just easy. With this piece the whole thing felt like I had to go a little bit deeper into my own shadow and deal with places in myself that are more difficult to look at and go into a certain darkness in myself in order to really let a particular sound come in that was wanting to come in.

There’s so much going on in both records, seemingly each of you going off in different directions. Do you compose every single note and the circular breathing and vocal parts for each of your bandmates?

Totally. It’s all through-composed. The way it works is I’ll bring in a section to the band for rehearsal and I’ll just transmit everything orally. I’ll just demonstrate everyone’s parts so we’re learning it by ear, in a sense, but also just through a direct experience rather than me bringing in all these pieces of music, which inherently would be difficult to notate traditionally to.

It’s a lot easier to demonstrate the particular fingerings of sections rather than try to notate it traditionally. That being said, everything is scored out. There is a score for both Palace of Winds and Blade of Love now. But we don’t really commit anything to paper or score until after the whole thing is complete. So it’s predominantly though an oral tradition, of just coming in and basically demonstrating the parts to everyone and going from there.

How did you actually arrive at the idea of forming a four-tenor saxophone band? It’s obviously an unconventional lineup.

It’s really kind of a mystery to me, quite honestly, because I never really thought about it or thought it was kind of a great idea.

I was working in 2012 part-time at a wine shop in Brooklyn at the time. I was at work one afternoon and just had this really strong feeling that I needed to start a band with Matt Nelson, Jeremy Viner and Patrick Breiner. It’s interesting because I didn’t actually know any of those guys that well. I took sight-reading class in college with Patrick and hadn’t seen him in years, met Matt on the street once and had dinner with Jeremy once. I think we were both playing at a festival in Portugal and we had a group dinner together.

But regardless I didn’t really know what those guys were up to musically or what they were passionate about. I knew of them having reputations of being great saxophonists but it wasn’t like I had as much information as perhaps one would think I should have to call them up and say I want to start a new thing with you. But that’s what I did. 

So you just had a hunch that Matt, Jeremy and Patrick were the dudes for this band idea of yours?

That’s why I say it’s a mystery. I just had a strong feeling that I should call those guys. I don’t want to spiritualize the experience either and say, “Oh, I had a psychic something or some message from whatever.” I don’t even want to go there. I just want to say it was a mystery, it was mysterious. It was just a strong feeling that I had and I don’t know exactly why but I just followed it.

It wasn’t something that was premeditated where I spent a lot of time thinking, “Oh I really want to start a four-tenor band and I really want it to sound like this and research what guys can circular-breathe and everything.” I did ask those guys if they circular breathe because I was envisioning something. Once I started feeling it, it was clear that I did want to work with a particular…I wanted to be able to have stability to go into certain density.

How did you ultimately get everyone together?

I just tracked down their emails from friends and asked them if they want to be involved in a new project of mine and no one hesitated. Then we got together and I talked about what really matters to me in life and what music is for me, just to kind of feel out if there was a resonance amongst the four of us. We ended up the first rehearsal holding a low B-flat, the lowest note on the horn for 45 minutes together, just being inside sounds together. It felt like there was something really unspoken between us and something I could feel was happening that felt special and felt like something I should continue to go deeper into.

I saw that Dusted piece where it said you went to an acupuncturist who cured you of vertigo. How did having vertigo affect you?

When I was 25 I was suffering from severe vertigo and went to tons of Western docs, inner-ear specialists, had MRI’s and all of this stuff. Nothing was coming back with any sort of clarity. I was essentially living in hell. I would wake up every morning and just pray that I would open my eyes and everything would be still and clear. Every morning I would open my eyes and everything would be basically shaking. It went on for months and it was just in a sense one of the most horrible times in my life.

Looking back on it now, I can see that that time was actually one of the best times of my life because it led me to a certain kind of transformational process that begun out of bottoming out in a way. I ended up going to this acupuncturist. I didn’t have an opinion as to whether or not acupuncture worked; I had no experience with it.

I really had a profound experience the first time getting acupuncture—having an acupuncture point needled on me. I just really felt all this internal movement in my body, like energy moving inside of me that I never was aware of before.

“Playing in Battle Trance is a spiritual experience for me. Music is a spiritual practice for me; it’s not any different than meditation or prayer.”

I never really thought about the body having this particular internal map that has been mapped out for thousands of years through Chinese medicine and the different energetic meridians that correspond with the different internal organs. It just completely blew my mind and after that appointment my symptoms didn’t subside but I felt like I wasn’t in hell anymore.

There was something that shifted internally for me. The symptoms didn’t subside but it was actually O.K. I ended up going back for treatment and over not too long the symptoms just subsided.

That really changed a lot for me in terms of my perspective of life and basically opening up my eyes to the unseen world. There are things that I can’t see that are actually real through that experience of starting to feel the energy meridians or these different invisible things that are operating inside the human body, for instance.

What came for you after that, in terms of that acupuncture experience?

It led to me getting a Qigong teacher and me studying Qigong pretty intensely from the age of 26 and becoming a certified Qigong healer.

Battle Trance.

Battle Trance.

And for you being both a Qigong healer and musician has interlocked in some way?

That has been highly inspiring and influential on my musical writing and performance. It feels like there’s something really coming together in those worlds that is becoming less and less separate for me. It really feels like everything is becoming one thing.

It’s making me more passionate and wanting to go deeper into music’s original purpose, sacred root and its ability to heal on the level of the body, mind and spirit and how traditionally, medicine for thousands and thousands of years took the form of working with sounds and movement and using herbs or whatever there was. That was what healing was for thousands of years, and obviously all of that has changed, especially in America.

Now the idea or what people think of when they think of “healing music” is “Oh, it must be just some relaxation CD where I can listen to and just go to sleep or feel good about myself.” But that’s not really what it was historically. It reminded me that physicians and musicians in ancient times weren’t necessarily differentiated from each other. There wasn’t a great physician who wasn’t also a musician and there wasn’t a great musician who also wasn’t a physician. There was something that both of those things were in the weave of life together and were not separate from each other and obviously that has changed.

There is something about the work with Chinese medicine that has brought me closer or kind of walking backwards towards the origin of what the function of music is in life and the potential of music’s power that, for many people, has been forgotten.

That seems to be translated in your live performance. When you play live, it’s sort of like a religious experience, as if you guys are going through a healing process.

Totally. Playing in Battle Trance is a spiritual experience for me. Music is a spiritual practice for me; it’s not any different than meditation or prayer, even. For me, it’s an opportunity to basically empty myself of my ego, my desires, my wants or my wanting to please people or what people are going to think about the music. Just basically become empty for the sound and the resonance to come through and a really intimate, deep and sacred experience with a group of people who don’t even need to know each other.

But there’s something there that people could actually experience something of what is real and an actual feeling of oneness, that we are all connected and made of the same substance. There’s something of that that can really be transmitted from heart to heart while we’re playing music through sounds. 

Battle Trance.

Battle Trance.

Was the band onboard with your vision right away?

It’s funny, I remember something upon our first meeting, Jeremy said something like, “You know, I don’t really believe in ghosts. Is that a problem?” I was like “No!” [Laughing]

We all have different ways of talking about our own relationship with what is holy for ourselves or what is divine in some people. It really comes down to the human heart and connecting as humans through the heart and through love and there’s not anyone in the world who doesn’t want love—and I’m not talking about the romantic love but actually the love that is the most powerful force in the universe

After a show, do you feel cleansed? Exhausted?

It’s different every time. Sometimes I’ll feel full of joy after a concert, really wanting to talk to people and connect. Sometimes I’ll feel like I’ll want to go in the corner and cry for a couple of days. Sometimes it’s exhausting, sometimes it feels empowering.

You’ve done composed music with Battle Trance and in collaborative quartet Little Women and improvisational music with trumpeter Peter Evans.

I love both and for me they are both necessary. It also gets into the question: How do you compose and how does something actually come into existence? And: Is there always a moment or a time period where you are improvising to get to the point of composition?

I feel like things would feel incomplete or something was missing if I didn’t have both of those wings. It’s like I need two wings to fly and one of them is working with composition and one is improvisation.

Battle Trance’s music falls into the unclassifiable niche but it’s been boxed it in as jazz, classical and chamber music. What’s your take on it?

Whatever is easiest for people to connect with it is fine. If someone wants to call it jazz music and that helps them get closer to it or describing it to other people that’s great or if they want to call it classical music, that’s great, too. I don’t really feel like there’s a name for it.

The most important things in life I feel you can’t talk about anyway so I’m fine with people not being able to describe the music. But you also have to kind of point to it about talking about things maybe that it’s not [laughing]. I don’t feel strongly that it needs to be labeled this or that. I don’t have much of an attachment to that.

Battle Trance.

Battle Trance.

You’re also a self-professed metal-head, lover of outsider metal outfits like Krallice, STATS and craw. How did metal open up your mind in terms of your own music?  

I didn’t grow up listening to metal so much but something really happened. I moved to New York immediately after high school; I went to the jazz program at The New School. In high school, I was really into jazz and nothing else. Moving to New York and going to jazz school and having a lot of the veils being lifted in terms of me realizing that I didn’t want to base my entire life pretending it’s 1959.

I was just going through a process of just opening up to life outside of jazz. I think this was before even Little Women started. But it was my wanting to see what was happening in New York and being exposed to other bands and genres and getting really into metal and feeling such a strong resonance with its particular animalistic quality that a lot of it has. The particular acknowledgement of despair or distress or certain things that I could relate to in myself that maybe I was repressing before that, but in terms of music. It really opened up a lot, getting into craw and Krallice and bands like that.

As someone who grew up listening only to jazz, was there someone here in New York who turned you on to metal?

I went to college with Ben Greenberg and he was someone who definitely exposed me to a lot of that music. He was playing in that hardcore band called The Fugue I think at that time. I would go to concerts with him and he’d tell me about shows. We were at The New School together. Then I met Charlie Looker and played in Extra Life for three years and Tony Gedrich was in the band who’s also in STATS. Those guys are deep into metal. I feel really grateful for that being opened for me because I feel like if I stayed in Vermont and listened to jazz it wouldn’t have happened.

When was this? Where were you hanging and seeing metal shows and what not?

I would come down to New York starting around in ’99. I moved here in 2001 so this was like early 2000s, 2001.

This was the early Todd P days and that was the tail end of the Knitting Factory still having cool stuff and Tonic—not that those necessarily were metal places but they’d still have things like that around that time. I remember going to hear The Locust and stuff like that around that time. Tonic and The Knitting Factory were the two big ones upon moving to New York.

Battle Trance would actually be a good fit on a metal bill.

I would love to. I’m trying to be more particular about having the music presented in a sonic environment that is appropriate and does the music justice.

Blade of Love is out now via New Amsterdam Records and NNA Tapes. Battle Trance plays St. Peter’s Chelsea (346 W 20th Street, New York, New York) on Thursday, September 22 at 8 p.m.