Anthony Braxton – Composition N. 247

Composition No. 247

Anthony BraxtonComposition N. 247 Leo CD LR 306 (2001)

A pretty challenging extended piece from Braxton and co.  I like it, though it’s certainly not a casual listen and I don’t listen to it that often.  It’s pretty dense, even relative to other Braxton releases, which says a lot.  This will probably turn off many listeners.  It features a lot of circular breathing and even includes bagpipes — to excellent effect. It’s yet another entry into Braxton’s “Ghost Trance Music” series.  This comes more from the realm of modern composition than jazz, although it mixes elements of both.  As composition, it intrigues me most because of what it suggests for music that extends continuously without any real fixed reference points to distinguish beginning, middle, end, or anything else.  I also like the texture of the bagpipes, which you don’t often hear in this kind of setting.

Anthony Braxton – Six Monk’s Compositions (1987)

Six Monk's Compositions (1987)

Anthony BraxtonSix Monk’s Compositions (1987) Black Saint 120 116-1 (1988)

Anthony Braxton regularly played standards — some of those efforts from the 1980s being quite abysmal — but a whole album dedicated to one jazz composer was unique (even if Braxton returned to that concept later).  Six Monk’s Compositions (1987) is something of a doppelganger of Steve Lacy‘s Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk from almost three decades previous.  Consider this: four of the six tracks here appeared on Lacy’s album, and both Mal Waldron (p) and Buell Neidlinger (b) played on both albums.  Braxton is at his most approachable.  He strikes a pleasant balance between faithfully playing these great songs and twisting things about just a bit in his solos.  It helps that these are Monk‘s songs, where the winding melodies and jittery rhythms seem like a perfect fit for Braxton’s biting, intellectually playful style.  This is a rather good Braxton release, and really must be one of his best “straight jazz” outings.  “Brilliant Corners,” “Reflections” and “Played Twice” are standouts.

Anthony Braxton Quartet – Quartet (Coventry) 1985

Quartet (Coventry) 1985

Anthony Braxton QuartetQuartet (Coventry) 1985 Leo CD LR 204/205 (1993)

Recorded on the same tour as Quartet (London) 1985 and Quartet (Birmingham) 1985, also documented in Graham Lock‘s book Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music (A/K/A Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton).  This was the final show.  Supposedly the group made an extra effort to perform well in that last tour performance for the benefit of the recording.  Braxton had by this point clearly broken away from the sorts of things he was doing with his first great quartets with Altschul, Holland and Wheeler or Lewis in the previous decade.  His compositions and methodologies had undergone great changes too.  Each musician has a “territory” specified beforehand by Braxton, which serves to facilitate interaction and provide a starting point, but ultimately there is no limit on what each performer can do in his or her territory.  Like composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, he was also using material that could be played simultaneously — he called it coordinate music.  In hindsight, these methods laid the foundations for the more elaborate renderings of Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music of the next decade.  This double-CD set also includes recorded interviews between Braxton and Lock used as the basis for parts of Lock’s book.  The cover photo is of the quartet at Stonehenge, with Braxton wearing one of Evan Parker‘s old coats because he absentmindedly forgot to bring one of his own for the tour.

Anthony Braxton – The Montreux / Berlin Concerts

The Montreux / Berlin Concerts

Anthony BraxtonThe Montreux / Berlin Concerts Arista AL 5002 (1977)

One of Braxton’s finest releases.  It pulls together a lot of what he was up to throughout his career to this point.  Everyone in each of his groups featured here is in dynamite form and willing to stretch on every performance, which removes the possibility of the compositions sounding merely academic.  The improvisation is unrelentingly fresh and inspired across the whole album, and never drifts into mediocrity and convenient formulas.  A classic.

The Montreux/Berlin Concerts is one of many highlights from Braxton’s tenure on the Arista Records label.  It features performances from two different European festivals in 1975 and 1976.  The recordings are mostly from two similar quartets with Dave Holland (b), Barry Altschul (d), and either Kenny Wheeler (t) or George Lewis (tb), plus one side-long recording with The Berlin New Music Group.  In many ways this is a culmination of many things Braxton was doing through the 1970s. Much like a comedian who will test out new material in various venues first and then repeat the best and most successful bits and routines for a big show or video/recording, Braxton is not so much trying out new methods here (with the exception of the orchestral track with The Berlin New Music Group) as much as delivering something with techniques he (and his bands) had already perfected.  What makes the album so special is that there are some very fine performances here.  Arguably, Braxton never led a small combo better than the ones here, even if he led other ones as good or nearly as good.  And these are stellar performances even from this impressive cast of characters.  In Braxton’s world, he deals with “musical informations”.  There is certainly a lot of information being exchanged on these sets.  Each performer is contributing — solo, spotlight time is shared fairly equally.

When Braxton was the first jazz signing to the new major label Arista, he promised to be some kind of crossover success (see the liner notes to The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton and a November 2008 essay in The Wire magazine discussing its release).  Leading up to his tenure with Arista, he had recorded works that extended into the territory of modern composition (of the likes of John Cage and the Fluxus movement), but he also worked with more traditional jazz material.  He drifted back and forth between the twin poles of traditional jazz and avant-garde composition.  But most of the time these were shifts between isolated modes, not truly a “crossover” in the sense of a meeting and melding.  On The Montreux/Berlin Concerts he does cross the divide between traditional jazz and modern composition, achieving a synthesis of both within any given piece.  There is definitely a sense of connection to traditional jazz throughout.  Often a bouncing, free-wheeling, syncopated beat as if from an old Fats Waller tune will be unmistakable.  Yet the speed and density of it all will not permit confusion with anything from Waller’s era.  The intervals, squeaks and new performance techniques also push this well beyond just the tradition.  Again, though, this is crossover music, and so this music is not completely of the “new music” realm of abstraction.  It inserts, modifies, expands, deconstructs, and borrows from the tradition at will, but never feels constrained by it.  It is the much talked-about but less frequently achieved notion of playing “inside” and “outside” at the same time.  This is an album by an artist who has developed techniques that allow a unique voice to emerge beyond and in spite of those techniques, that is enjoyable in a way that exceeds the moral limits of traditional musical structures.  It makes for an excellent listen.

Anthony Braxton – Saxophone Improvisations Series F

Saxophone Improvisations Series F

Anthony BraxtonSaxophone Improvisations Series F America Records 30 AM 011-012 (1972)

Anthony Braxton is a guy where either you appreciate his drive to create unique music with little or no commercial appeal, or you don’t.  You either admire his efforts to zig when everyone is expected to zag, or you don’t.  Another analogy: the question of coloring within the lines or not.  Braxton (hypothetically) colors in the lines sometimes, and sometimes not, but he’s also written two dozen new coloring books in the meantime, some of which have no lines whatsoever to color within or without, but he still says they are coloring books.

This album is similar in many ways to Dona Lee [Donna Lee], which was recorded just a week prior.  Though here there are only original compositions, no standards.  Also, rather than group material, this album is played entirely solo.  So comparisons to For Alto are sure to abound, though already Braxton’s sound had opened up a bit from that earlier recording, adding more lyrical elements to his abrupt, cold attack.  This album features compositions from his “Kelvin” series.  While those who seek out unique and uncompromising jazz will surely admire this, there is a sinking sensation that Braxton is trying to be self-consciously “different” and that holds it back just slightly.  His real breakthroughs as a performer and composer were still in the future, swiftly approaching.  This one is perhaps most appealing in how it demonstrates “how he got there.”  Choice tracks: “NR-12-C (33 M)” and “JMK-80 CFN-7.”

Anthony Braxton – Dona Lee

Dona Lee

Anthony BraxtonDona Lee America Records 30 AM 6122 (1975)

An album documenting Anthony Braxton really coming into his own, with his best work just around the corner.  His own playing is more assured than before.  The tendency with Braxton’s early recordings is for the willful complexity of his compositions to be alienating.  Incorporating some standards into his recording repertoire evidences how he softened that alienating effect and strengthened his playing across the board by expanding his palette.  The band here is good, though not as nimble and imaginative as some of the great bands Braxton would lead in later years.  While the rhythm section here is certainly competent, like some early Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman albums one gets the feeling the rhythm section isn’t quite ready to go to all the same places as Braxton.  Just a week after recording the material here Braxton recorded the solo performances on Saxophone Improvisations Series F and the next month recorded his first Creative Music Orchestra piece RBN—-3° K12 at the Festival of Chatellerault in France.  And a few months later Braxton was back in the United States and presented a spring concert in New York City, portions of which were later released as Town Hall 1972, which bears similarities and features some arguably superior performances, although the song selections on that live album put less weight on Braxton’s growing use of standards juxtaposed with new music than Dona Lee.

Anthony Braxton – For Alto

For Alto

Anthony BraxtonFor Alto Delmark DS-420/421 (1971)

This one does not live up to its reputation.  For one thing, it’s poorly recorded.  But that aside, I think the biggest problem is that Braxton just isn’t able to pull off many of his ideas.  The big ideas are here, and they are big indeed.  But geez, this sounds like a Phish concert some of the time, with kind of wanky solos that trample the underlying concepts beyond the point of being interesting anymore.  Braxton’s angular style was never particularly tactful, but I think he quickly picked up enough tact to get to a higher plane following these recordings.  In other words, there is a self-indulgent quality to this that holds it back — always his Achilles heel.  Later Braxton recordings are better.  Though I suppose this does deserve credit for helping to create a space for recordings as uncompromising as this, with an entire album of abstract, screeching saxophone solos.

Anthony Braxton – Eugene (1989)

Eugene (1989)

Anthony Braxton with the Northwest Creative OrchestraEugene (1989) Black Saint 120137-2 (1991)

A good one, though somehow falling just shy of being one to recommend without qualification.  Braxton, himself, plays exceptionally.  He sounds particularly enthusiastic in his solos.  The synthesizer, which is surprisingly reminiscent of late period Sun Ra (in a good way), is nonetheless as dated as a silver lamé jumpsuit from a 1960s sci-fi movie.  This live recording is also a merely adequate document of the performance at times, without the richness that surely must have been felt in-person at the performance. And Braxton on alto sax is often buried in the mix, but that’s not a major problem.  The album’s main strength is that despite featuring such unique and daring music, it maintains fluid and almost upbeat qualities that definitely stand out.  When this music gets going it is really fresh.  The use of electric guitar to produce crunchy yet sinuous blocks of sound anticipates John Shiurba and Mary Halvorson‘s work with Braxton more than a decade later, though the instrument has a relatively minor role here.  The best parts of the album are those reinterpreting big band jazz in new ways.

This album marked something of a turning point in Braxton’s orchestral jazz music.  It was the beginning of a new phase that left behind many of the reference points to traditional big band jazz that appeared sporadically through many earlier works and recordings.  Influences from some of Sun Ra‘s and Ornette Coleman‘s large-scale works became a little more clear.  Braxton also was transitioning to bands made up of students, as he would do with smaller groups as well.  Braxton may have better large ensemble recordings but this one represents an important change in approach that relied less on having “professional” musicians in large numbers available.  Even the Braxton novice will catch on to this quickly.

Anthony Braxton – Trio (Victoriaville) 2007

Trio (Victoriaville) 2007

Anthony BraxtonTrio (Victoriaville) 2007 Victo VICTO CD 108 (2007)

A performance at the 2007 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville by Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Trio.  The group performs in conjunction with the SuperCollider program running on a computer.  Braxton smokes!  He has with him a large assortment of saxophones, including the monster contrabass saxophone.  Look to this as one of his finest personal performances of his later career.  The other members play well, though Halvorson does better yet on Quartet (Moscow) 2008.

Anthony Braxton – Five Pieces 1975

Five Pieces 1975

Anthony BraxtonFive Pieces 1975 Arista AL 4064 (1975)

Anthony Braxton has to be one of the last jazz musicians to achieve “giant” status before the genre’s popularity declined to the point where doing so became an impossibility.  It has been noted that when he was the first jazz signing to the new major label Arista, he promised to be some kind of crossover success (see the liner notes to The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton and a November 2008 essay in The Wire magazine discussing its release).  Well, success he certainly did achieve.  Despite the widely-held belief that new jazz was no longer profitable for labels or musicians from the mid-1970s onward, Braxton’s series of albums for Arista all sold relatively well–enough for the label to break even even if Braxton himself never financially profited.  In terms of being a “crossover” artist, that is a bit more difficult to assess.  Leading up to his tenure with Arista, he had recorded works like For Alto that extended into the territory of modern composition (of the likes of John Cage), but he also worked with more traditional jazz material on albums like In the Tradition.  And that has remained his mode of operation since–drifting back and forth between the twin poles of traditional jazz and avant-garde composition.  But does that constitute a “crossover”?  It would seem most of the time the answer is no.  But Five Pieces 1975 and some other Arista recordings do make strides at crossing the divide between traditional jazz and modern composition, achieving a new synthesis of both within a given piece.  It seems for that reason it manages to be one of his best efforts.

The success of Five Pieces 1975 certainly has a lot to do with the superb band surrounding Braxton.  They are up to the challenge of each piece and every performer is a match for the next.  There is a balance achieved between them that  evidences a complete mastery of both the compositional elements and the more liberal improvisational sensibilities at work.  If the album could be improved, it would be to replace “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with something like “Opus 40P” or even “Maple Leaf Rag” from Duets 1976 to add more variety.  But then again, why tamper.

Musicians labeled “prolific” are usually also saddled with the label “inconsistent”, if nothing else due to the almost inherent lack of editorial decisions to provide some kind of focus.  Anthony Braxton is saddled with both those labels, as well as the one calling his music “difficult”.  Yet through the years he’s also managed to do some things the “jazz-industrial complex” (his term, like the military-industrial complex and prison-industrial complex) doesn’t normally allow.  Thanks largely to a source of income teaching in later years, he has managed to keep writing and recording challenging works without giving up on his mellower, more lyrical and accessible impulses.  He has also managed to come about as close to being a household name as any modern jazz musician since Coltrane’s era (apart from certain members of the Marsalis family and a few pop musicians masquerading as jazz artists).  So aside from his purely musical contributions, which are indeed numerous, he has presented an image of jazz that contrasts with the accepted one.  That may be his most enduring achievement.  It means that there will be more than one path forward.