ANTHONY BRAXTON
by Ran Blake (1979)

Graham Lock: "This three part series on AB's recordings first appeared in Ran Blake's 'Third Stream' column in the Bay State Banner on 15, 22 and 29 March, 1979. I have made a few minor corrections to the published text."

1.

Anthony Braxton is a maverick. As soon as you feel that you've neatly categorized him, he springs one wallop of a surprise.

Late last autumn, when he appeared at Jonathan Swift's in Cambridge, I expected to hear music of outer space. moments of philosophical, yet burning discontent. We did. But then we also heard Thelonious Monk's 'Ruby, My Dear' and a wailing version of Benny Golson's 'Along Came Betty'. If his solo version didn't cook in the Art Blakey sense, it bristled with its own direct intensity. The evening was a smash success.

And now the progressive music department of Arista Records, led by energetic Steve Backer, has just released a three-record set of his fully notated composition for four orchestras. It is a daring move for Arista, Backer and Braxton.

Anthony Braxton dedicated this work to editor-educator-historian-writer Eileen Southern, who is Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Music at Harvard University. Robert Baustian, Murray Gross, Kenneth Moore and Gene Young are the four conductors involved; the recording took place May 1978 at Oberlin.

This is the first of a series of ten compositions. Braxton projects the other nine in a most handsomely smart 16-page booklet that Arista has published with the diagram-titles in color. The fifth composition of this series will be for 100 orchestras in four cities, connected by satellites and television systems. This work will be completed by 1985.

Braxton says, "This piece involves the use of multiple orchestrations and dynamics of spatial activity. This work is scored for 160 musicians and has been designed to utilize both individual and collective sound-duration (in live performance). Each orchestra is positioned near the corners of the performing space, and the audience is seated in both the center and sides of the space (around and in between the orchestras).

"The resulting activity has been constructed to fully utilize every area of the room—which is to say, each section of the performing space will give the listener a very different aspect of the music. The science related to how this multiple use of space is utilized will also open another chapter in multi-orchestral activity, and hopefully, this work will viewed as a positive contribution to transitional multi-orchestration as we move to the next cycle."

It is far too soon to either evaluate or to musicologically describe the content of this record set. Steve Backer, who with Michael Cuscuna is mostly responsible for getting Braxton's music to the public, is very excited about this project. "I'm quite proud of his three-record set, not just musically, but in that it is, I think, the first time that a black man coming from the 'jazz' tradition has been given the energy, time and money to record his notated compositions, as opposed to his improvised playing.'' This statement may be arguable, as the musics of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, George Russell and Ornette Coleman (Skies of America) have been recorded, but certainly no record company has ever quite pulled out so many stops.

Who is Anthony Braxton? Although he plays a number of reed instruments, he has been best known as an alto saxophonist who came into prominence as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, founded in 1965 by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams in Chicago. The most articulate writing about Anthony Braxton,

from the English writing press, has been in Boston—Bob Blumenthal's superb columns in the Boston Phoenix and particularly Al Saunders Jr 's splendid article about Braxton for the Banner in 1975, "Detached intensity" is one of Saunders' well-tailored descriptions of Braxton's music.

The enterprising Robert G. Koester issued much of Braxton's music in this country in the late 60s and early 70s on Delmark. On Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark DS-415), 'Composition 6E' begins with voices. As compared to later works, the piece has a low-key quality. Joining Braxton on this disc are Muhal Richard Abrams, violinist Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith on trumpet. All men play several instruments.

Side two is on my turntable now and as I am politely about to knock it, hoping to hurt neither Koester's nor Braxton's feelings, I find myself enjoying it. (This is my fourth hearing this month.) 'Composition 6D' has a fine solo by Abrams and crisp horn writing. Leo Smith's 'The Bell', the album's concluding number, is given tender moments by Leroy Jenkins. Quite often there is the absence of a hand-clapping beat; the music though, is not without rhythm; harmonies are nonexistent and this is part of Braxton's personal style. One must find new criteria on which to pass judgement, if this is your bag.

2.

The Complete Braxton (Arista AF1902), a two-record set of Anthony Braxton's 1971 recordings, features pianist Chick Corea, Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, bassist Dave Holland (also on cello), percussionist Barry Altschul and the London Tuba Ensemble.

'Composition 6K' is Braxton's first duet with Corea. It is a swiftly moving semi-virtuosic statement. At first the piano has a detached, conservatory-like facility. Enter Anthony Braxton with his choice pitches and his nice energy. Chick Corea comps rhythmically behind him, almost breaking into stride during his solo. There are intriguing harmonic passages before the recapitulation.

Their other duet, 'Composition 6L', is a real success. Chick's chords skillfully set a 4-4 mood, continuing this dirge behind Anthony who plays sopranino sax. Here this instrument has the bite of an oboe, veiled with a breathy quality. There follows a sensitive solo by Chick that is all too short.

The mood of the piece is consistent and holds up well. I am very impressed by how unflashy Chick is. Communication between the men is very good as they allow each other space and each will, on occasion, go to the other's side of the pendulum. However, I wish Anthony would break his non-harmonic code and get inside Chick's delicious chords. Anthony's phrases vary in length. A repetitive scale-like passage follows which breaks the mood. Chick acknowledges this with a declamatory statement. Chick then plays the piano strings and Anthony gets a spurt of energy, his very outer garment resembling Ornette Coleman. A mock anger pervades. And then, peace follows the mild squall.

'Composition 6M' is one of two Braxton solos on this album. Here he plays contrabass clarinet and exploits the range of the instrument.

The quartet of Braxton, Wheeler, Holland and Altschul performs three compositions. 'Composition 6J' paints a sombre mood for the listener. Mallet opening. Clarinet enters. Altschul is frantic. Although Alschul never monopolizes, the listener is always aware of his presence. He often treats his percussion as a pitch instrument and always with a concern for dynamics. Wheeler appears next on the scene on a fluegelhorn, I believe. Dave Holland now can be heard on bass. There is no parallel motion between the two. Silence.

The piece continues—Wheeler uses a mute—Anthony's flute greets us while the bass becomes the lead voice. Anthony starts a dialogue on contrabass clarinet with Altschul. Their sentences are uneven in length, and the mood is ambivalent. The alto arrives with an assertive voice although its words are few. After the flute entrance, there is a white noise explosion. By now, there are too many colors to absorb. The percussion dominates. The opening material is briefly suggested, but not directly.

'Composition 6A' possesses an unharmonized statement and a deliberately rhythmically monotonous bass. 'Composition 6I' triggers a Californian flashback of late 50s Ornette . Anthony caustically plays a gutteral alto solo that is truly brilliant. As a functioning rhythm section, Holland and Altschul skillfully wind behind the leader, but after a while, Dave Holland's choices of pitches fail to surprise. Kenny Wheeler wails his lower notes unsentimentally hinting at gloom. His short scale-like figures are brought to a crescendo.

The London Tuba Ensemble, a compound of four E-flat tubas and one C tuba, produce a group of single notes about two minutes in duration throughout 'Composition 4' followed by silences which become a little longer than each previous silence. This is a detail, but a miniature surprise.

The highlight of the album is 'Composition 22,' Anthony's second solo, with four sopranino saxophones over-dubbed. Leo Smith writes, "The piece begins with a solo and unfolds to duet, trio and quartet and back through trio and duet to solo. The type of technique utilized in development is a slow or ballad-type form, moving lines at different velocities, rhythmic-type elements and repetition."

The pace is gorgeously conceived, full of unexpected dynamics and harmonics, moving through the linear lines that are exciting. In retrospect, Carlos Olms deserves much credit for his superb engineering.

3.

1975 was a major breakthrough year for Anthony Braxton. Emanem released two records which he recorded in London in 1974 with Derek Bailey. The albums are successful for the sonorities both musicians create.

Five Pieces 1975 (Arista AL 4064) received much acclaim and might be considered a major beginning for the leader-composer. The album contains four Braxton compositions. 'Composition 23H' is a terrific example of Braxton's coloring and his ability to organize and develop themes while enhancing the musical characteristics of each individual performer. The vivid colors of the muted trumpet, elegant flute, fresh percussive figures with a whimsical recurring five-note motif all attest to this particular talent. On this album, Braxton is fronting Barry Altschul (percussionist), Kenny Wheeler (trumpeter), and Dave Holland (bassist).

This is followed by a piece which I call the Space Stop-Time Mirror and which the composer labels 'Composition 23G'. It is a tour de force masterpiece remarkable for a schizophrenic alto solo which converses with itself from different registers. Braxton pilots his group with purpose and precision.

With 'Composition 23E' the listener receives the flavor of a sustained bass note straddling a low B. Brushes whisper after the trumpet and alto appear. The horns state a melody while the bass uses an almost double arco action. The horns state a melody while the bass uses an almost double arco action. The piece bristles with excitement; dynamics are varied. As the horns explore their northern regions, there are occasional and very imaginative outbursts from Altschul. 'Composition 40M' is terse and more overtly cheerful than previous cuts, but the eleventh listening may tell a different story.

Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (Arista AL 4080) displays what happens when the Braxton charisma has 30 musicians to steer. 'Composition 51' jets the album off the ground. Braxton repeats a seven note figure that is tightly harmonized. These cluster-like figures have the instrumental cohesiveness much like Giuffre-Herman's 'Four Brothers' but still remain radically different. Braxton's music is reminiscent of the writing on that ill-fated Columbia disc that Bob Pierce and Teo Macero produced called What's New? Braxton creates well-seasoned saxophone backgrounds which complement Cecil Bridgewater's shattering trumpet solo. There are hints of George Russell pan-tonalities here and a wonderful passage where the brass descend by whole step.

The second piece, 'Composition 56', elects great sonorities. An ominous mood prevails. The percussion interrogates. Braxton calls this an example of open-ended composition.

'Composition 58,' his delightful march, ends the first side with its marvelously witty five-note passages behind trombonist George Lewis. Remarkable are the pungent low brass growls as they battle a three-note passage. All of this calls for attention behind Anthony's clarinet solo. Here Braxton is the master of textural, registeral, timbral varieties. Braxton refers to this medium as "creative orchestral music" separating the genre from his notated orchestral music.

'Composition 55' starts out as a duel between the lower register instruments and the higher register reeds. Muhal Richard Abrams takes a welcome solo. It isn't the best example of his choice of notes, but there is a very relaxed rhythmical feeling. The piano background, with vibes, behind Braxton's contrabass solo is tantalizing, and although derived from earlier material, it should be developed further as a separate entity. The album contains Braxton's own notes which are particularly helpful when listening to the final track, 'Composition 59'.

Anthony Braxton's Duets 1976 is a personal favorite and is a highlight in the career of his partner, Muhal Richard Abrams. Braxton says, "The performances on this record could best be understood as 'actualization' of a given conceptual and structural path, rather than versions of a given theme."

The first original, 'Composition 60', is a gem, notable for the clarinet entrance, spare use of tone clusters, mournful descending major sixth which both artists conjure together, disturbing seven-note figure, and Abrams' playing. As Abrams' right hand plays the sixth, his left hand goes its own direction as if it were in no way related. There is little hint of bebop or the blues tradition in his playing here, which does not fit the context of Anthony's thematic material. But Abrams imbues the piece with a spontaneity other 20th century composers should listen to and hear from. Unlike so many others, he never uses technique for its own sake. And it is refreshing to hear Anthony remain on one instrument.

'Composition 40P' is a pulsating, remarkably well-organized composition. Listeners expecting to hear a contrabass sax equivalent to Coleman Hawkins' 'Body and Soul' will be disappointed. Anthony shows and admits a predilection for the "lower sound system" and succeeds in terms of timbre. Anthony contributes a wonderful five-note motif which he later takes over behind Abrams' beautiful solo. Abrams' playing is lean and linear and could highlight a space-age rendition of George Russell's 'All About Rosie'. The flow and controlled energy remind me of one of the best of Lennie Tristano, for example 'Line Up'.

Braxton's solo on 'Maple Leaf Rag' is a pleasant shock. It is not intense but similar to Ornette Coleman's soloing with the Herb Pomeroy Band.

'Composition 62' momentarily reminds me of a mock Braxton recomposition of Thelonious Monk's 'Evidence'. There is a short B section where Abrams explores the higher sonorities of the piano all too frequently overlooked. My ears flash back to Marion McPartland's rare foray into free music at Aspen. Next, Abrams explores the dark registers of the piano. This composition is beautifully realized. Webern is alive and spontaneous after years of slowly suffocating on academia's yellowing scores. This is an excellent example of pointillism and I love both men's choices of pitches. As this cut draws to a close, I marvel at the album's variety and the sonorities that Abrams coaxes from the piano.

The album concludes with a special favorite, 'Nickie', which Anthony calls improvisation on the spot. I'd love to hear Gil Evans orchestrate this melody. For beauty, choice of notes, and empathy, it is my favorite Braxton solo on Arista.

The Montreux-Berlin Concerts (Arista double LP 0998) may be my least favorite Braxton outing, but it elicited rave reviews from Down Beat and other publications. 'Composition 40N' sets up a gorgeous, auspicious mood. Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul participate. Braxton's solo is a coherent example of his ability to swing, but it doesn't immediately electrify me, perhaps because of my worn out standards of judgement. On 'Composition 6C' there is a well-honed collective conversation between the horns. As the piece advances, one welcomes the arrival of the contrabass sax as a salty, pungent quartet sass each other and the audience. One hears fragments of Creole march music and 'The Marseillaise'. Judging by the audience reaction, this concert of Braxton compositions was a complete sensation. Braxton and George Lewis both solo on side four's 'Composition 63' with the Berlin New Music Group. There is no chamber music that I know which contains a three-way conversation between contrabass clarinet, trombone and harp.

Black Saint Records have issued a Max Roach album entitled Birth and Rebirth. His sole partner on this date is Anthony Braxton. 'Magic and Music' and 'Dance Griot' highlight this creative pairing.

From Mixtery: A festschrift for Anthony Braxton, Graham Lock ed. (1995), pp. 77-82.
Reprinted with the permission of Ran Blake; all copyrights remain with the author.

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