List No. 82: An Introduction to the Music of Anthony Braxton

A guide by Syd Fablo and Patrick

Introduction

Anthony Braxton

Born: June 4, 1945, Chicago, IL, United States
Currently: Connecticut, United States

In discussing “Braxton’s misleadingly forbidding aesthetic[,]” The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (Ninth ed.) comments that “Braxton’s music requires — and deserves — demystification . . . .”  Though it might be quite counter to Braxton’s artistic intents to demystify anything, consider this list a humble attempt to offer an entryway into his catalog of recorded works, which is nothing if not staggeringly large.  He has released dozens of albums as a leader, many on what can fairly be called “micro labels”.  Most problematic for a listener interested in Braxton is that his recordings are frequently out-of-print, or available only in a form that’s rather expensive.  To complicate matters, many of his albums that have consistently remained in print are not necessarily his best.  Fortunately, his breakthrough recordings for major label Arista Records have been reissued — something long overdue — on the collection The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, which is expensive but handsomely packaged.  Recordings for Hat Hut Records tend to go in and out of print, as the label releases albums only in limited editions but tends to offer reissues eventually.  Albums on Leo Records are likely in print, but may not be available just anywhere.  The availability of recordings on other labels varies considerably.  Braxton’s own New Braxton House label has recently begun offering digital downloads of various recordings.  Rather than focus only on recordings currently in print, we have focus on what are the best, most significant (to Braxton’s career) and most accessible recordings, simply noting as best we can what is in print.

Braxton’s discography can seem, at first glance, rather monolithic; the more things change, the more they stay the same.  In other words, his later recordings will almost invariably find precedent in his earlier recordings, even in his very earliest as a leader.  Yet there have been developments, mostly in the form of breakthroughs that brought certain elements into greater focus, or that introduced new and different variations on existing approaches.  The problem with Braxton’s reputation, too, is that he’s been saddled with descriptions like challenging, daunting, intimidating — you name it.  Yet his astute biographer (of sorts) Graham Lock noted on meeting Braxton for the first time, “This is not the super-cold, super-brain of media report; this is a music lover.”  As John Litweiler wrote, “His most engaging quality is his nervous vitality . . . [which] results from a romantic attitude that keeps finding new worlds to explore as well as familiar forms to revisit and refreshen.”  Braxton’s music may not be for everyone.  But there is plenty of excitement, joy, playfulness and more in his music.  And, in spite of much puzzlement, bewilderment and outright hostility on the part of some critics, his music largely avoids bitterness or condescension.  Yet it helps to be prepared for music that is simply different from what you’ve heard before, because Braxton is often trying to do something “new”.  Anyway, consider this litmus test:  if you’ve ever had a real conversation with someone about music, then you’re a potential Braxton fan.  If not, and you don’t see that happening, then it may be best to move on to other interests and bypass Braxton entirely.  To draw another analogy, if you don’t like books that are about the writing, but simply want a narrative where “stuff happens,” then Braxton might not be for you.  There is nothing wrong with that, just find what you like, which will probably be elsewhere.

From the beginning of his career, Braxton took particular influence from “cool” saxophonists Warne Marsh and Paul Desmond.  But that is not to mention mystical (and even outer space) influences from Sun Ra, a little fire from John Coltrane, the compositional insights of Arnold Schönberg, and the rhythm and wit of Fats Waller.  Or Braxton’s faculty on a whole armada of instruments, including obscure reeds from the lowest registers (contrabass clarinet and contrabass saxophone) to the highest (sopranino saxophone).  Much of his music though deals with juxtaposition and combinatorial experiments.  Braxton likes to dig into musical history (whether of humankind or simply of his own songbook) and examine bits and pieces, draw different ones together, and offer up the results for what they portend for the future.  In many ways, it’s the use of the past in forward-looking ways that Braxton developed from his association with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) that separates his oeuvre from vaguely similar efforts by the likes of, say, James Carter — someone far more visceral and sentimentally emotive than the calm, cerebral and thoughtful Braxton — or even Sun Ra — someone whose works also turned on a dime from abstraction to the traditional but was far more indebted to the swing era than the younger Braxton, who grew up after that era had passed.  But Braxton’s compositional efforts are also focused on new methods of organizing musical information, and perhaps less so on what that information might be.  In that respect, the most similar musical traveler out there is Karlheinz Stockhausen.  For Braxton, there are three types of musicians, none of which are meant to be a value judgment: restructuralists (who come up with new ways of thinking), stylists (who expand upon the restructuralists’ new ways of thinking), and traditionalists (who operate within a defined space).  Braxton considers himself a restructuralist, though he makes efforts to record music “in the tradition” every few years.

A legend is provided below explaining some of the information we have listed for each entry on this list.  Each entry includes some release information, with recording date(s), and a “key track” — meant to give you a taste or focal point for each album (especially useful for those who want to buy downloads).  Selections are organized chronologically by recording date.  We have made an attempt to divide Braxton’s career into different periods, but those are somewhat arbitrary on our part.  There is good material from all periods.  We have also provided a listing for a few additional resources that you might want to investigate if you have an interest, like Graham Lock’s excellent Forces in Motion book.  As a final note, though Braxton’s compositions are identified by a composition number, most have a title that is graphical in nature (the image heading this list is our own version of a Braxton title).  Braxton has explained, “I say the listener should look at the titles and enjoy them or not enjoy them, but I don’t think you need to understand them in order to listen to the music.”  At least for the time being, we have not reproduced Braxton’s graphical titles.



The Early Years; AACM; Parisian Expat; Breaking Out: 1967-73

Braxton volunteered for the U.S. Army and played in military bands.  He returned to his native Chicago, and was an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).  He relocated to Paris, but then returned to the United States and lived in New York in Ornette Coleman‘s basement, making money as a chess hustler (and occasional pool hustler).  He then took up music again and returned to Paris.


For Alto

For Alto (1970)


Release Notes:

Recorded: 1969, Parkway Community Center, Chicago, IL

Category: Solo

Difficulty Rating: Medium

Key Track(s): “To pianist Cecil Taylor”

Review:
A free jazz masterpiece. But here’s the thing, no one in the music ever set out to make “free jazz” — it’s a common misconception about so-called “free” jazz that the performers of said music simply throw out the rules of jazz and make a lot of noise. What’s free about the music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and those who have followed them is that each performer has created their own set of rules to work with, not that they’ve completely thrown out all sense of structure and form. Which of course means that the listener has to work harder — to listen closer than normal and figure things out, then to readjust again to different performers with their own approaches, or listen hard again even when a performer (like Braxton) chooses to change his/her own methods. And this release – Braxton’s third under his own name – is his calling card, cataloging several approaches and strategies he uses in the creation of his music just as Ornette Coleman’s pre-Atlantic albums merely lay the groundwork for his real arrival with The Shape of Jazz to Come. So if Braxton’s earlier records announce him as a member of the AACM, working within the broader ideas essayed by the organization, this one’s pure Anthony Braxton — there’s no more naked way in music than solo performance to open yourself up — and what Braxton has laid down showcases a performer of staggering diversity. It’s not always easy — the tributes to John Cage and Leroy Jenkins in particular can be trying for many ears not attuned to this sort of things — but there are pieces, especially his tribute to Ann and Peter Allen, which are remarkably delicate, introspective, even lovely. There are other solo albums in his extensive catalog that are perhaps easier to digest — a double album of solo alto saxophone is a bit of an undertaking, even for those predisposed to enjoying it, and one might seek out an album of equal quality like Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 — but as an introduction to Braxton and his ideas, this is a perfect summary.


CCC, Vol. II

Creative Construction CompanyCCC Vol. II (1976)


Release Notes: A/K/A No More White Gloves; Out of Print

Recorded: May 19, 1970, Washington Square Methodist Church (Peace Church), New York, NY

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:
Braxton moved to Paris at the end of the 1960s, along with many other jazz players.  While some artists found success there, like Art Ensemble of Chicago, Braxton’s group Creative Construction Company did not.  So he returned to the United States and lived in New York.  He gave up music for a time.  But then a reunion show with Creative Construction Company, featuring guests Muhal Richard Abrams, Richard Davis and Steve McCall, brought him out of his temporary retirement.  That reunion show (part of which is featured on this album) brought Braxton into contact with Chick Corea, who offered an invitation to his new group Circle.


Paris-Concert

CircleParis-Concert (1971)


Release Notes: available onCD and digitally

Recorded: February 21, 1971, Maison de l’O.R.T.F., Paris, France

Category: Small Group, Sideman

Difficulty Rating: medium

Key Track(s): “Nefertitti” (sic)

Review:
On the heels of Chick Corea‘s 1971 A.R.C. album and trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul (and no matter how this is billed feels at this reserve like an instrumental piece of development in Corea’s work, moreso than the development of the other participants) Braxton was invited to join the group formally before it was named after sitting in with the trio. Braxton’s catalog to this point had consisted mostly of works in a very abstract realm, often owing to the tactics of the AACM, and this is one of the earliest pieces of him working in a more identifiably “jazzy” realm, tackling a group of originals (including one of Braxton’s own), a standard (“No Greater Love”), and an interesting recent composition by Wayne Shorter (“Nefertitti” (sic)) that was also part of A.R.C.’s repertoire. And as with the trio, however collaborative the process of the music-making may have been, Corea is the leader here – he makes all the announcements on mike, wrote the liner notes and (though I haven’t measured it strictly) seems to be allotted the most solo space. But Braxton crashes the party, barnstorms the proceedings on “Nefertiti,” deconstructing the work with the fervor he’d bring to his later approaches to standards, while his own “73º Kelvin (Variation – 3)” is for me the most interesting original here, showcasing for the first time on a widely available record the lengthy lines learned from one of his great influences — Lennie Tristano — that later would become one of his signature approaches to composing melodies. For three long pieces plus a series of solos and duets, the group works over their material in a fine example of the sort of rooted jazz with free leanings that Eric Dolphy liked to call “inside and outside at the same time.” As for Braxton? Here’s some of the earliest evidence that when he wanted to he could play it straighter, that his range could extend over not just the abstract sounds of an outsider, but could and did incorporate “the tradition” in the makeup of the music.


Dona Lee

Dona Lee (1975)


Release Notes: available digitally as Donna Lee

Recorded: February 18, 1972, Paris, France.

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Easy/Medium

Key Track(s): “Dona [sic] Lee”

Review:
Circle broke up, leaving Braxton stranded (a somewhat common circumstance for touring musicians) in Los Angeles.  He eventually made his way back to Paris.  One notable development of this new period was that he started to record standards. Because his compositions can seem strange to some, standards provide something of a simplification.  There are points of reference to latch on to.  While the rhythm section here is certainly competent, like some early Cecil Taylor albums one gets the feeling the rhythm section isn’t quite ready to go to all the same places as Braxton.  So this isn’t quite the pinnacle of what he could do.  Nonetheless, this is still a fine album, with the standards showing an affinity — and faculty — for be-bop, with a little more modern spin on it of course.  The new compositions are certainly more challenging, providing an abrupt but still comfortable contrast.  Most significantly this transitional album marks a growing maturity in Braxton’s recordings, as well as in his own performance style.  Things would only get better from here.  But this album demonstrated that as much as he tried to do things never heard before, he still had a keen interest in the jazz tradition and what it offers for the present and future.  It also is concrete (and early) proof his recordings can be downright approachable at times.


Conference of the Birds

David Holland QuartetConference of the Birds (1973)


Release Notes: available on CD, vinyl and digitally

Recorded: November 30, 1972, Allegro Studio, New York, NY

Category: Small Group, Sideman

Difficulty Rating: Easy

Key Track(s): “Four Winds”

Review:
It is fairly common for jazz musicians to serve an apprenticeship as a sideman.  Examples are everywhere, like Miles Davis with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane with Miles Davis.  Anthony Braxton never really did that, at least not as a precursor to a solo career.  Although his stint with Circle came closest, he only infrequently played a supporting role to another bandleader — much like major influence Ornette Coleman.  Conference of the Birds is one of his relatively few appearances as a sideman.  The group is mostly Circle alumni, plus Sam Rivers.  This album isn’t a showcase for Braxton by any means, but it’s still a great one.  Skeptics might well start here before moving into Braxton’s own catalog.



The Arista Years; Small Groups to Large-Scale Works; Side Projects: 1974-80

Braxton was offered (and accepted) a contract with the new major label Arista Records, as its first jazz artist signing.  His visibility rose considerably worldwide, and many listeners only know his recordings from this period.  Musically, he began to expand and refine ideas from his early period.  He met his wife Nickie just before leaving Paris to permanently return to the United States.


Five Pieces 1975

Five Pieces 1975 (1975)


Release Notes: available on vinyl and digitally, and was on The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (which seems to be out of print)

Recorded: July 1-2, 1975, Generation Sound Studios, New York, NY

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Easy

Key Track(s): “Opus 23 G”

Review:
A real stunner of an album and one of Braxton’s all-time best small group records. In it, he and his group (Dave Holland and Barry Altschul from several recent works with Braxton, plus Kenny Wheeler on trumpet to round out the proceedings) navigate a lot of territory with aplomb, working in several modes with equal confidence. The record opens on a duet, Holland and Braxton doing a take on “You Stepped Out of a Dream” and it’s a lovely intro to the record, almost a way of saying to the doubters that what is to follow comes from the same folks who made this piece. On the heels of this is the spare, moody “Comp. 23 H” which deals a lot in coloration more than heavy soloing, but provides an excellent showcase for drummer Altschul nonetheless. Closing the A-side is “Comp. 23 G,” perhaps the finest thing on the album as it perfectly straddles the line between the experimentation and eccentricity of Braxton’s approaches and a more listenable and straightforward approach to same — it’s essentially a head-and-solos piece, though there’s such a long “head” line at the beginning, the soloists move away from the chords, and the rhythm is so fragmented that it doesn’t feel like the standard blowing piece. Still, after the lengthy unison line that starts it, Braxton takes a solo, building in intensity until the climax of his spot and then giving way to Wheeler’s superb work, which in turn allows the rhythm section to shine afterward (though “rhythm section” is a belittling phrase in music such as this where all four players are contributing fully and equally). The B-side opens with the lengthy, dramatic “Comp. 23 E,” a showcase for Braxton in all his glory. It moves through several sequences and he changes horns accordingly — alto sax, flute (twice), and the oddball sound of the contrabass clarinet — to fit the mood of the rest of what’s happening. Again, a slow dramatic build takes place, complete with peaks and valleys, ranging from intense to eerie, over the 17+ minutes of the piece. It’s something of a grand statement, and if there are other catchier pieces on the record there’s nothing this ambitious — in fact there’s little like it in his catalog. The record closes on “Comp. 40 M,” a relatively brief blowout over a bass vamp — another rare thing in the Braxton catalog — that’s sort of like a compact version of “Comp. 23 G,” but provides something like a crooked dance number as it goes toward the fadeout. Alongside Holland’s Conference of the Birds, this is one of the best entry points to Braxton’s music-world for the adventurous listener — accessible enough for most, yet an undiluted version of what he does.


Time Zones

Richard Teitelbaum With Anthony Braxton – Time Zones (1977)


Release Notes: available on digitally as Silence / Time Zones

Recorded: June 10, 1976, Creative Music Festival, Mount Tremper, NY, September 16, 1976, Bearsville Sound, Woodstock, NY

Category: Small Group, Collaboration

Difficulty Rating: Medium/Difficult

Key Track(s): Since there are only two side long tracks, either one will suffice. You’ll know within two minutes of either if this is for you.

Review:
Quick — what’s the definition of “jazz”? If your answer is “swung triplets” or any derivative of the word “swing” you can just move on to the next piece. But if that’s your criteria, you’re probably not reading this list anyway. If your answer was “conversation” or some similar idea then you ought to treat yourself to this album, tagged as difficult only because there’s not much like it out there in Braxton’s — or anyone’s — catalog that can give you something similar by which to assess it. Or is there? Throughout two long pieces, Braxton, with his usual array of reeds, duets with a remarkably sensitive Teitelbaum, whose moog synths respond to, query, provoke, and challenge Braxton constantly. There’s a remarkable give and take between the performers, and every time one of them moves into another area of sound — rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, or simply sonic — the other immediately rises to the challenge, meets him there, and moves the dialogue forward yet again. It’s beautiful, bracing, challenging, witty, and even entertaining in the right proportions. Braxton’s music hits all kinds of areas along the spectrum from more composed, fully-formed pieces over to largely improvised works, with this definitely leaning toward the latter, and a great example of such things. So is it so unique? Yes and no — if you have some familiarity with other freely improvised duets — like those of Cecil Taylor in his incredible run of Berlin concerts, or for that matter Taylor and Max Roach, Braxton and Max Roach, or Braxton and Derek Bailey — this may not be so alien. It’s new to hear it done with a moog, yes, but not something completely unknown to you in approach. But aside from Braxton’s duets with Bailey, which I feel are less successful, I can’t off the top of my head think of anything in this style of duetting that predates it. It’s great to hear Braxton, rooted in the African-American jazz tradition but with an ear toward European avant-garde classicism working alongside Teitelbaum, whose background in serial composition had only a few years before this turned his ear toward the forward-thinking jazz of Coltrane, Coleman, and Taylor. Kindred spirits, for sure.


Dortmund (Quartet) 1976

Dortmund (Quartet) 1976 (1991)


Release Notes: Out of Print

Recorded: October 31, 1976, Jazzfestival “Jazz Life,” Dortmund, West Germany

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Medium-Easy

Key Track(s):

Review:


The Montreux / Berlin Concerts

The Montreux / Berlin Concerts (1977)


Release Notes: available digitally and was on The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (which seems to be out of print)

Recorded: July 20, 1975, Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland; November 4 and 6, 1976, Berlin Jazz Days, West Berlin, West Germany

Category: Small Group, Orchestra

Difficulty Rating: Medium

Key Track(s):

Review:
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 mostly are 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.  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 that has found his voice and is using it to the best of his abilities.  It makes for an excellent listen.


Quintet (Basel) 1977

Quintet (Basel) 1977 (2001)


Release Notes: available on CD

Recorded: June 2, 1977, Safranzunft, Basel, Switzerland

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


Creative Orchestra (Köln) 1978

Creative Orchestra (Köln) 1978 (1995)


Release Notes: available digitally

Recorded: May 12. 1978, Großer Sendesaal WDR, Köln, West Germany

Category: Orchestra

Difficulty Rating: easy-medium

Key Track(s): Comp. 58

Review:
In effect, this supplants the need for the enjoyable Creative Orchestra Music 1976, by allowing the ensemble more space for improvisation and movement, with hatArt’s usual superb sound (even in this live setting) and extended versions of four of the studio album’s cuts (the two most abstract pieces are excised here, presumably because that sort of spacious music works better in your own home than a concert hall). Essentially, these are pieces that are relatively jazz-like (and in the case of “Comp. 58,” march-like) filtered through the prism of Braxton’s compositional strategies and post-“free” playing techniques by the ensemble, linked together by completely unstructured “free” material (the “Language Improvisations” noted in the first track) making improvised segues between the pieces. Marilyn Crispell, who’d go on to make a great mark with Braxton in a few short years, sounds terrific throughout and Bob Ostertag’s sculpted synthetic soundscapes also add an element of unsettling weirdness that still feels perfectly right within the context of Braxton’s approach to “jazz.” And when the whole ensemble closes things with the march of “Comp. 58,” which starts out Sousa-like, then slowly goes off the rails, only to draw everything back together in its stellar climax, you know you’re in the hands of a master.


One in Two, Two in One

Max Roach Featuring Anthony BraxtonOne in Two, Two in One (1980)


Release Notes: Out of Print

Recorded: August 31, 1979, Jazz Festival Willisau ’79, Willisau, Switzerland

Category: Small Group, Collaboration

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


For Two Pianos

For Two Pianos (1982)


Release Notes: was available on The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (which seems to be out of print)

Recorded: September 13-15, 1980, Studio Ricordi, Milano, Italy

Category: Composer/Conductor Only

Difficulty Rating: Medium

Key Track(s): “Comp. 95”

Review:
Braxton was strongly influenced by a number of composers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Arnold Schönberg, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Hildegard von Bingen.  For Two Pianos takes primary influence from Schönberg.  It was especially written for the two performers featured here: Frederic Rzewski and Ursula Oppens, each playing piano as well as melodica and zither.  It is a work of ritual and ceremonial construction.  The score is 46 pages, and the musicians perform in costume (floor-length hooded cloaks).  The mystical, cryptic messages encoded in the music can, superficially, seem ominous, with simple repeating figures, but on deeper inspection the interaction of the performers is hopeful.  A popular analogue is perhaps Scott Walker‘s The Drift.  Of note here is that this piece has nothing whatsoever to do with jazz, proof — if any were needed — that Braxton’s interests and talents go well beyond that genre.  It may be true that not all of the man’s compositions are equally good or successful, and some smack of excess and self-indulgence, but this is one of his better-realized recordings of this type.  Braxton has noted his many difficulties in getting his non-jazz compositions performed and recorded, something he attributes in large part to racism.



The Second Great Quartet(s); Professor Braxton: 1981-93

With his major label contract concluded, Braxton entered a period of relative poverty, when he lost his house and couldn’t pay for heat.  Then he formed a pair of renowned quartets.  He also entered academia, first with a position at Mills College in Oakland, California, and later with a professorship at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (were he remains as of this writing).  During the 1980s he introduced many new ideas to his music, rather than merely expanding upon what he did in the 1970s.


Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984

Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984 (1985)


Release Notes: available on CD and digitally, and on The Complete Remastered Recordings On Black Saint & Soul Note

Recorded: September 10-11, 1984, Vanguard Studios, New York, NY

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Easy-medium

Key Track(s): “Composition No. 115”

Review:
In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, Braxton led two quartets that have garnered special reputations among his admirers.  The first (featured here) included Marilyn Crispell (p), Gerry Hemingway (d), and John Lindberg (b).  After a falling out between Braxton and Lindberg, Mark Dresser took over on bass.  The trio of recordings with the latter incarnation of the great 80s quartet on a 1985 tour of England tend to receive more attention, but Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984 is a very good place to get your feet wet with Braxton’s 80s output.  Vestiges of bop stylings are more pronounced than in many later works of that decade.  Although “Composition No. 114 (+ 108A)” proves that Braxton’s methods can be totally ineffective at times, the rest of the album is good — and rather welcoming.  The musicians have a great rapport.  Pianist Marilyn Crispell deserves special attention here.


 

Quartet (London) 1985 (1988); Quartet (Birmingham) 1985 (1991); Quartet (Coventry) 1985 (1993)


Release Notes:available digitally

Recorded: November 13, 1985, Bloomsbury Theatre, London, England; November 17, 1985, Strathallen Hotel, Birmingham, England; November 26, 1985, Warwick University Arts Centre Studio, Coventry, England

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


Six Monk's Compositions (1987)

Six Monk’s Compositions (1987) (1988)


Release Notes: available on CD and digitally, and on The Complete Remastered Recordings On Black Saint & Soul Note

Recorded: June 30 and July 1, 1987, Barigozzi Studio, Milano, Italy

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Easy

Key Track(s):

Review:


Eugene (1989)

Anthony Braxton with the Northwest Creative OrchestraEugene (1989) (1991)


Release Notes: available digitally, and on The Complete Remastered Recordings On Black Saint & Soul Note

Recorded: January 31, 1989, Beall Hall, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR

Category: Orchestra

Difficulty Rating: Medium

Key Track(s): “Composition No. 112”

Review:
Braxton’s album with the Northwest Creative Orchestra marked a turning point in his orchestral jazz music.  This 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.  He also was transitioning to bands made up of students, as he would do with smaller groups as well.  One fault of this recording is that Braxton on alto sax is usually buried in the mix, but the band plays well so 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.


Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989: For Warne Marsh

Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989: For Warne Marsh (1990)


Release Notes: Out of Print

Recorded: December 10-11, 1989, Sage & Sound Recording Studio, Hollywood, CA

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Easy

Key Track(s):

Review:


2 Compositions (Ensemble) 1989/1991

2 Compositions (Ensemble) 1989/1991 (1992)


Release Notes: Out of Print

Recorded: October 23, 1989, Frankfurt, Germany; February 23, 1991, 2nd Noiseburger Festival, Bürgerhaus Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg, Germany

Category: Orchestra, Composer/Conductor Only

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


Willisau (Quartet) 1991

Willisau (Quartet) 1991 (1992)


Release Notes: Out of Print

Recorded: June 2, 4 and 5, Mohren, Willisau, Switzerland

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


(Victoriaville) 1992

(Victoriaville) 1992 (1993)


Release Notes: available digitally

Recorded: October 10, 1992, Festival International De Musique Actuelle, Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993

Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993 (1997)


Release Notes: Out of Print

Recorded: July 19, 1993, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, CA

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: medium-difficult

Key Track(s): no specific track, as both discs consist of long suites of music.

Review:



The Later Years; MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship; More New Working Methods and Musical Informations: Ghost Trance Music, Sonic Genome, Falling River Musics, Echo Echo Mirror House, SuperCollider, etc.: 1994-present

Braxton developed various new musical techniques and forms in his later years.  Often these expanded and elaborated upon ideas first germinated in the 1980s.  In 1994 he received a MacArthur Fellowship, referred to informally as the “Genius Grant.”  For a considerable time during this period his music revolved around his Ghost Trance Music compositions.  He performed and recorded extensively with his students and former students.  In the 1990s he operated his own record label Braxton House, which went inactive but was revived along with a new online label New Braxton House in 2011.  There has been no slowing down of either the quantity or intensity of his work compared to anything before.


Octet (New York) 1995

Octet (New York) 1995 (1997)


Release Notes: available digitally

Recorded: November 24, 1995, Tri-Centric Festival, Knitting Factory, New York, NY

Category: Large Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


Nine Compositions (Hill) 2000

Nine Compositions (Hill) 2000 (2001)


Release Notes:Out of Print

Recorded: May 23-24, 2000, The Cadence Building Spirit Room, Redwood, NY

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006

9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (2007)


Release Notes: available on CD/DVD and digitally

Recorded: March 16-19, 2006, Iridium Jazz Club, New York, NY, (DVD interview from March 17, 2006 at Columbia University, Dodge Hall, New York, NY)

Category: Large Group

Difficulty Rating: Medium

Key Track(s): “Composition No. 350”

Review:
Braxton only got better and better in his later years.  This lavish and massive box set may seem imposing, but it’s among the best recordings of his long career.  He’s working with a large ensemble, his 12+1tet, and performing many of his last Ghost Trance Music compositions.  Most of the band members are his students or former students.  These musicians know the music and bring a wealth of personality to it.  In many ways, this album is the culmination and fullest realization of things Braxton had been working on since his second great quartet was formed in the 1980s.  In short, he has created a context to use and reuse his compositions in a way that places minimal limitations on the performers while maximizing the opportunities for constructive group improvisation.  It is music like this that places Braxton squarely in the Ornette Coleman school that makes composition a mechanism to achieve what purely “free” playing usually doesn’t.  The large ensemble provides a full palate to work with.  One distinctive feature is the the use of “pulse tracks”, which provide notated passages broken up with brief open periods for free improvisation.  The effect is usually to have a steady rhythm interrupted by slippery interludes–not unlike the opening “Hell” segment of like-minded film director Jean-Luc Godard‘s film Notre musique [Our Music] with its images frozen and advanced in stuttering, lurching movements.  This might be as good as any place to start with Braxton, and it certainly belongs near the top of the list of his most essential recordings.


Trio (Victoriaville) 2007

Trio (Victoriaville) 2007 (2007)


Release Notes: available digitally

Recorded: May 20, 2007, Festival International de Musique Actuelle, Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Medium

Key Track(s): “Composition N° 323c”

Review:
Recorded by Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Trio, which uses the SuperCollider software program during performance, this is something of an alternate path from Ghost Trance Music.  Rather than focusing on composition as the guiding and organizational force pushing the music along, the software program moderates the interactions of the performers to a significant degree.  Performers are presented with Braxton’s graphical Falling River Music notation (here’s an example photo of a different piece), and the SuperCollider program plays audio patches that Braxton has developed.  The resultant music is a little more dynamic — or at least ominous — than a lot of Ghost Trance Music.  Braxton had along a lot of his largest saxophones, and they make commanding appearances.  Braxton plays so well here you would hardly guess at his advancing years.  This trio is also special in that Mary Halvorson (g) and Taylor Ho Bynum (t) are two of the most notable performers to play regularly with Braxton in his later years.


Beyond Quantum

Anthony Braxton, Milford Graves & William ParkerBeyond Quantum (2008)


Release Notes: available onCD and digitally

Recorded: May 11, 2008, Orange Music Sound Studio, West Orange, NJ

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:


Quartet (Moscow) 2008

Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (2008)


Release Notes: available on CD

Recorded: June 29, 2008, DOM Cultural Center, Moscow, Russian Federation

Category: Small Group

Difficulty Rating: Medium

Key Track(s): “Composition 367B”

Review:


Trillium E

Trillium E (2011)


Release Notes: available on CD and digitally

Recorded: March 18-22, 2010, Systems Two, New York, NY

Category: Orchestra, Composer/Conductor Only [[??]]

Difficulty Rating:

Key Track(s):

Review:



Top 5’s From Syd and Patrick

We have each picked our top five favorite Braxton albums and five songs from albums not featured on the list above, as a sort of alternate ways to look at his catalog.  Consider this a shortened way for us to recommend some good records and songs to a newcomer.  For clarification, any single “songs” that make up an entire album are excluded from the five song selections lists below, and are only represented in the album picks.

FIVE FAVORITE ALBUMS

Syd (listed chronologically):
Five Pieces 1975
The Montreux / Berlin Concerts
For Two Pianos
9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006
Trio (Victoriaville) 2007

Patrick:
For Alto
Five Pieces 1975
Creative Orchestra (Köln) 1978
Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993

(and let me get back to you on that elusive fifth one – too many great choices)

FIVE SONG SELECTIONS FROM OTHER ALBUMS
Syd (listed chronologically):
“The Song Is You” from Trio and Duet
“Comp. 38A” from New York, Fall 1974
“Comp. 40P” from Duets 1976
“Maple Leaf Rag” from Duets 1976
“Round Bout Midnight” from 19 (Solo) Compositions, 1988

Patrick:
TBA


Legend:

Categories:
Solo
Small Combo (Duos, Trios, Quartets, Quintets, Sextets)
Large Group (Octets, 12tets, etc.)
Orchestra
Sideman
Collaboration
Composer/Conductor Only (does not perform)

Difficulty Rating:
A fairly objective view of how challenging the music is in relation to other Braxton recordings.  If you want a challenge, by all means start at the “difficult” level records and work your way out from there.  If you want something more in line with traditional jazz or something more easily digested, you might steer toward the “easy” titles and gauge your responses from there.  We both feel that there is a lot of good music in all three categories.


What’s Next?

Support Anthony Braxton! – Braxton is still performing and recording.  Go see him perform!  Buy his records!

Restructures – Anthony Braxton Discography – Extensive online discography compiled by Jason Guthartz, also featuring an essay and review archive and some links to Braxton’s compositional notes

Anthony Braxton Discography (by Francesco Martinelli)

http://jazzdiscography.com/Artists/Braxton/index.html – “sessionography” (see also Circle)

The Tri-Centric Foundation – official site, including the home of the New Braxton House label, offering albums for download.  Also offers a selection of free downloads of bootleg recordings, and subscriptions to a free e-mail newsletter.

Braxton Musical Systems – brief introductions to the various musical systems (compositional/performance methods) Braxton has used.

Braxton House – Braxton’s own label, recently revived as New Braxton House offering album downloads (at prices much reduced over past physical releases)

Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton [A/K/A Forces in Motion : Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music] (by Graham Lock) – this document of a 1985 tour of England with extensive interviews of Braxton is probably the place to start if you want to read about Braxton.  There is a 30th anniversary edition available with a new chapter

The Tri-Axium Writings (Vols. I-III) – Braxton’s essentially self-published writings, tending toward the philosophical and touching on many subjects

Composition Notes A-E – Braxton’s essentially self-published guide to his compositional methods

New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton’s Cultural Critique (by Ronald Radano)

The Music of Anthony Braxton [A/K/A Music of Anthony Braxton (The Excelsior Profile Series of American Composers)] (by Mike Heffley)

Time and Anthony Braxton (by Stuart Broomer)

Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (by Graham Lock)

Mixtery: A Festschrift for Anthony Braxton (Graham Lock, ed.)

Anthony Braxton: Sein Leben, Sein Musik, Sein Schallplatten (by Peter Niklas Wilson)

A Discography & Bibliography Of Anthony Braxton (by Hans Wachtmeister)

“Grand Master Flash,” Brian Morton, The Wire, Issue 252, February 2005, pp. 28-35.

Sound American 16: The Anthony Braxton Issue

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl

Code Girl

Mary HalvorsonCode Girl Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-027 (2018)


Mary Halvorson is one of those musicians who refuses to stand still.  Code Girl is yet another wide-ranging album — this time a double album.  She is now drawing more heavily from pop music.  The album’s production is not the sparse, “live” style that drove some of her excellent earlier albums like Saturn Sings and Meltframe.  Instead there are effects and a rich, streamlined polish that recalls efforts to combine pop/rock recordings with jazz by Colin Stetson or on Matthew Shipp‘s New Orbit, and at times the wistful 1980s recordings of Sonny Sharrock (Guitar).  To the extent that jazz fusion is an appropriate descriptor for some of this, Tim Berne‘s bands with guitarist Marc Ducret make a decent reference point.  Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire channels the calm, reflective style of Bill Dixon now and then.  One striking feature of this particular band is the presence of Amirtha Kidambi on vocals.  Her singing is reminiscent of Asha Puthli‘s on Ornette Coleman‘s Science Fiction but with more of the tone (and vibrato) of Wendy Lewis on The Bad PlusFor All I Care.  If all this seems like too many comparisons, it is enough to respond that Halvorson’s band displays an awareness of lots of different music, drawing bits and pieces without becoming beholden to any of those influences.  The resultant music of Code Girl is uniquely its own while still revealing a connection and affinity to what has come before, even if its historical reference points remain mostly off the beaten path.

In a way, Code Girl seems like a good first crack at integrating more pop elements into music that still retains influences from abstract jazz — the structure of many of these compositions still overwhelmingly show the influence of Anthony Braxton.  But Kidambi doesn’t seem like quite the right vocalist, her vocal tone too prim and proper and her bel canto vibrato seeming less fitting than, say, sprechgesang.  Halvorson herself sounds great, of course.  She’s as good as ever switching on a dime from clean, virtuoso single note runs (like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, etc.) to distortion-laden improvised riffs (like Wata of Boris).  In a way, American musicians of Halvorson’s generation are steeped in a digitized, computerized environment that permits a very casual acceptance of chopped up and reconfigured bits with leaps and juxtapositions accepted as a matter of course.

As good as this is, the double album as a whole can seem a bit scattered and uneven, though it would also be difficult to say that any particular songs are failures.  While Code Girl can’t quite match Halvorson’s Away With You (arguably her best album to date), it is a welcome confirmation that she has more new ideas and plenty of adventurousness to spare.  Here’s hoping that she can fine tune the approach of Code Girl in the future.

Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Nicole MitchellMandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds FPE Records FPE 012CD (2017)


Opens with the excellent “Egoes War,” which is an extended percussive workout with some interesting electric guitar snippets, sort of in the vein of Sun Ra‘s afro-futurism.  From there things devolve into banal identity politics-based third world-isms and naval-gazing noodling drawn from the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  It picks up with “Listening Embrace,” which is reminiscent of early Julius Hemphill, and “Staircase Struggle,” with its in-your-face sung/spoken vocals.  On the whole this album is a bit hit-or-miss.

Mary Halvorson – Meltframe

Meltframe

Mary HalvorsonMeltframe Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-021 (2015)


Mary Halvorson is one of the most talented guitarists of her generation.  Her approach might be compared to that of Bill Frisell.  Both guitarists have eclectic interests, a generous spirit towards collaborations, penchants for odd — almost contrarian — improvisations, and a willingness to employ distortion.  However, especially in his later years Frisell has gravitated toward a pastoral Americana in his work that can come across as sedate and complacent.  Halvorson, on the other hand, is much more willing to dabble in dissonance and incongruous leaps.  That is to say, Halvorson sounds like Frisell turned up to eleven, with a more adventurous sense of composition.

Meltframe is a collection of solo guitar cover versions of generally lesser-known jazz tunes. For the most part, this is yet another tremendous album from Halvorson.  She opens the set with a ragged, willfully jagged and loud take on Oliver Nelson‘s “Cascades.”  Then there is “Cheshire Hotel” by the French guitarist Noël Akchoté, a sometimes collaborator with Halvorson, with a sort of pop derived melody and an emphasis on rhythmic reverb.  Duke Ellington‘s “[(In My)] Solitude,” probably the most widely known composition to appear here, is played with a solemn yet sensitive emotional palette — another of the disc’s highlights.  Carla Bley‘s “Ida Lupino” gets an acoustic treatment, recasting the tune’s tender, nostalgic sympathies for a charismatic female actor/director fading from view by newly emphasizing a kind of scrappiness.  The album does drop off toward the end, with compositions that impress much less and performances that only occasionally spark interest.  So the album is a tad uneven, but most of what is here is good-to-great.

Mary Halvorson Octet – Away With You

Away With You

Mary Halvorson OctetAway With You Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-024 (2016)


Away With You is much less overtly “jazzy” than, say, Saturn Sings from six years prior.  Halvorson seems much like the rightful heir to the kind of music her former teacher Anthony Braxton has been making for half a century.  These recordings feature an octet with a horn section playing charts set against abstract solos.  The charts aren’t exactly conventional, but they do provide an organized reference point that contrasts with other aspects of the proceedings.  In Halvorson’s hands, it isn’t that she merely juxtaposes the strange and conventional, or that she fully integrates them either, but rather she plays those distinct approaches off each other in varying degrees.  This lends a dynamism to what she does that seems the key to the album’s success.  There is a totality evoked that contains disparate approaches and their synthesis, while extending equal respect to each and all of them.  This is how Away With You achieves the much talked about but rarely delivered notion of music that is “inside” and “outside” at the same time.

Valerie Wilmer – As Serious As Your Life

As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz

Valerie WilmerAs Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (Allison and Busby 1977)


Val Wilmer is a journalist who photographed and wrote about the “new jazz” also known as “free jazz”, etc.  Her 1977 book As Serious As Your Life (revised and reprinted numerous times, with various alternate subtitles) remains one of the better-known histories of the musical movement.  Much of the book consists of chapter-length treatments of particular musicians, plus a few chapters on specific issues or theories.  The book captures the various attempts to forge and hold together a community of shared values mediated by this music.  While the biographical portraits sometimes verge on hagiography, the book as a whole benefits from well-researched quotes from performers themselves.  In fact, this book is an invaluable source of first-hand quotations from practitioners of this type of music during its heyday.  Figures like Bill Dixon, Clifford Thornton, and Rafael Garrett, for instance, offer extremely wise views on the music business and the practice of jazz.  And Wilmer deserves much credit for offering up a range of perspectives, often confused and contradictory, to allow readers to appreciate the multifaceted interests and objectives of those involved in the “new jazz” movement.

As the work of a journalist, though, this suffers from all the usual handicaps.  Among those is a certain theoretical weakness, drawing conclusions from unstated assumptions rather than providing any clear explanation of the analytical framework that led to those conclusions.  Well, at times it is perhaps less a weakness than a disingenuousness, what might be summed up as ideology masquerading as a critique of ideology.  Actually, as will be seen, As Serious As Your Life might be seen as an early example of so-called “left neoliberalism” that first emerged in the 1970s.

Every chapter, and practically every page, documents some form of resentment and envy (although it should be noted that not all the subjects interviewed exhibit these qualities). This doesn’t seem to be precisely Wilmer’s intent. But this emerges from the book nonetheless.

In a September 1971 interview, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen remarked:

“If you achieve a certain independence in your work, you’re automatically attacked by all sides, last but not least by your own colleagues in the different countries.  It’s fairly difficult nowadays for composers in general, and in particular for younger composers, to get performances or teaching jobs.  And if someone like me has all his works regularly performed—very complicated works like Gruppen for three orchestras; Carré for four orchestras and choirs; or Mixtur, which requires a lot of electronic equipment, four sound engineers, another four persons playing the sine-wave generators, a lot of rehearsals—then there’s automatically a lot of jealousy.  And I can understand that feeling.  Then, there’s also another reaction coming from people who have a traditional musical education and are very much disturbed by what I do.”

Stockhausen uses the word “jealousy” here, but really he means “envy” in the sense of “resentment”.  He does posit a useful dichotomy of those who, as quasi-reactionary partisans oppose innovations or change, and those who nominally support a common project but raise objections based on envy or resentment.

Envy and resentment were pronounced factors in the “new jazz” movement, especially in relation to its limited commercial prospects.  Iain Anderson, in This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, noted:

“The narrowing audience for free improvisation illustrated experimental musicians’ growing difficulty in finding suitable venues and rewards consummate with their self-image as artists.  Many champions of free jazz began to view their lack of opportunity as a consequence of the music industry’s racial and economic structures, rather than the intrinsic value or resonance of their work.  These extra-musical developments soon interrupted and fractured the debate over modernist aesthetics, threatening the critical establishment’s prestige, credibility, and ability to mediate the position of jazz in American culture.”  (p. 75).

Wilmer is a “champion of free jazz” in this context.  Especially in her chapters that are topic-based essays not focused biography, she frames her narrative to bracket out these questions.  But Wilmer’s framing leaves her with little to support the idealized objectives of many free jazz practitioners (as quoted by Wilmer).  This shades into an endorsement of the “myth of meritocracy” that holds that all meritorious action should be (but isn’t) rewarded commensurately — and is an attempt to demystify the absence of a meritocracy.

To be more precise, Wilmer basically adopts the ideological position articulated by philosopher John Rawls, probably the leading 20th century philosopher of political liberalism.  Rawls insisted that envy and resentment were not intrinsic to the human condition, but were the byproduct of unjustifiable inequality.  But Rawls’ position has been criticized by the likes of Jean-Pierre Dupuy in an interesting and relevant way.  Dupuy insists that there are symbolic procedures (hierarchy itself, demystification, contingency, and complexity) that make acceptance of unequal social conditions tolerable, that is, that give the appearance of critique but really form a protective buffer around individuals to allow hierarchy to function instead of being an actual challenge to it at its foundations.

The role of envy is pronounced in the politics of the far right wing.  Recall former 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plea to avoid the “bitter politics of envy” — Romney of course espousing this to suggest that the poor should accept their lower social status without objection.  Another prime example is novelist Ayn Rand‘s work.  Her pseudo-philosophical concept of “objectivism” is nothing more than the allowance of some people to assert their self-perception/self-identification as “fact” that must be accepted and acted upon by others (while dodging the question of which people get to do this and which don’t, and why).  Unlike the far right, who seek to maintain and promote inequality but eliminate objections to it, centrist liberals tend to assume that envy and resentment would go away in a “just” society (contrary to the view of psychoanalysis, which posits that envy is part of human psychology and therefore would not go away).  The problem here is that the dubious assumptions of Rawlsian liberals cause them to fail to meaningfully distance themselves from odious monsters like Rand.  At bottom both simply try to “wish” away envy and resentment.  As a result, the centrist liberals simply draw a line of exclusion in their hierarchy slightly differently than the right-wing reactionaries — but they still draw those lines and show no sign of trying to eliminate them in the future either.  We end up with merely a slightly different “management” of the collective feelings of guilt over the differences between particular groups.  In this way, the sentiments of black nationalism espoused in this book are often not so far off from the right-wing populism of, say, country musician Merle Haggard in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Rather than see black nationalism as merely one intermediate step in a larger effort, it is seen as an endpoint — despite the resentment-induced contradiction that if black nationalism is desirable then why not white nationalism, or, more humorously, this leads to the satirical song about male chauvinist resentment “What About Men?” from the TV show Portlandia.

Wilmer frequently frames the narrative of her book around a rather rigidly linear notion of (artistic) legitimacy.  (Following Dupuy, Wilmer here accepts hierarchy itself as an externally-imposed order independent of personal value).  She sees “free jazz” as unquestionably at the pinnacle of musical achievement and sophistication, at times indicating that it shares that position with Euro-classical music.  This leads, for instance, to complete derision of all forms of so-called jazz fusion, in ways that are often baffling.

Wilmer and some of her interviewees are right to point out that more marketing of the “free jazz” genre might have changed its prospects by creating demand and thereby leading to wider acceptance.  But those sorts of marketing decisions are basically political in nature.  Wilmer and some of her interviewees are hesitant to explicitly see them as such.  (Following Dupuy, there are numerous passages in Wilmer’s book that emphasize the contingency and complexity of the position of “free jazz” musicians as part of the accident of birth in an arbitrarily racist society with a complex and uncontrollable musical economy involving record labels, club owners, promoters, etc.).  All this reduces the “free jazz” movement to a kind of Ayn Rand-like universal (“just”?) capitalism, merely from an anti-racist entrepreneurial position.

So what is sorely lacking here is the recognition of something W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote long ago:

“[A]ll Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”

“Criteria of Negro Art” (1926).  Wilmer and her interviewees frequently depoliticize their cultural interventions, and further tend to absolve many of the quoted speakers from having to reevaluate the self-serving and self-defeating aspects of their positions.  In this respect, Wilmer’s book takes a very different view than Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz / Black Power (1971), which saw the “free jazz” movement as intimately linked to militant black political action in decolonization and anti-capitalist movements.  Carles and Comolli, like Du Bois, viewed “free jazz” as unabashedly partisan, though Wilmer recounts and indeed promotes a concealment of that partisanship that is ultimately unconvincing and, frankly, often deceptive. As Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks:

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek to know in what respect my race is superior or inferior to another race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master.

“I have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors.

“There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden.

***

“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.

“One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices.

“I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world.

“My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values.”

Wilmer is obviously writing from a very different perspective than Fanon.  But in this way, in hindsight at least, it can be seen how the free jazz movement fizzled and ultimately failed, by becoming an accomplice to the system it ostensibly fought against and surrendering the revolutionary premises that gave rise to it in the first instance — Anderson’s This Is Our Music is a very even-handed treatment of that transition.

As Serious As Your Life remains an invaluable resource and a book that anyone researching the “free jazz” genre will need to consult.  But, at the same time, readers should consider other relevant scholarship that throws the ideology of Wilmer’s book, and of the musicians she interviewed, into relief.

Ornette Coleman Quartet – Reunion 1990

Reunion 1990

Ornette Coleman QuartetReunion 1990 Domino
891203 (2010)


Recorded at an appearance in Italy in 1990 of the “reunited” Ornette Coleman Quartet, this bootleg has a number of things going for it in spite of the expected lo-fidelity sound.  For one, there are some original songs present that do not appear on any official albums, and this bootleg comes from period of years without any official recordings.  Second, some of the performances are quite good.  The first disc is relatively strong, though the second disc doesn’t really maintain the same level of performance.

Charlie Haden plays like a motherfucker here — this is one of his strongest recordings of the era.  Billy Higgins also turns in an above-average performance that surpasses any of his studio turns in Ornette’s band.  Ornette plays well as usual, though there is nothing particularly remarkable about his performance here.  On the other hand, Don Cherry turns in a substandard effort, and he more often detracts from the songs than contributes to them.

This bootleg is naturally only for Ornette fanatics.  But there are a enough highlights to recommend this to those fanatics.

What Is Harmolodics

What is “Harmolodics”? Well, it is the term that Ornette Coleman used to describe his concept for composing music.  He wrote in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

“The composed concept of the music I write and play is called Harmolodics. The packaged definition is a theoretical method not exclusively applied to music. Harmolodics is a noun that can be applied for the use of participating in any form of information equally without erasing or altering the information. In music, the melody is not the lead. The lead is a sequenced unison form which requires anyone to transpose all melodies note for note to their instrument.”

One might still wonder what he really means by the term despite that “definition”.  Ornette’s guitarist Bern Nix equated “Harmolodics” to counterpoint.  Counterpoint is a concept established in European music.

Jean Philippe Rameau is recognized as the founder of tonal harmonic theory—the theory developed first to account for music of the eighteenth century, later extended to ninteenth-century repertories.  Musicians have been trained for the last two hundred years to perceive music in Rameau’s terms—as sequences of chords—and thus his formulations seem to us self-evident.  Before Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie [Treatise on Harmony] (1722), theories and pedagogical  methods dealt principally with two aspects of music: coherence over time (mode) and the channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices (counterpoint).”

Susan McClary, “Afterword: The Politics of Silence and Sound” in Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature Volume 16) (1985).

Ornette’s music often expressed an extremely egalitarian relationship between polyphonic voices.  In other words, it indeed sounded like it shared many of the goals of counterpoint.  And yet, he had essentially no formal music training, in counterpoint or anything else.  So while he was concerned with a return to pre-Rameau concerns with “channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices” in general, he didn’t follow any of the specific rules of counterpoint.  The idea of keeping all elements precisely equal is a newer idea in counterpoint.  Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote “Kontra-Punkte” in 1953, which he described as keeping all the voices equal.  But Ornette’s approach was more concerned with establishing a melody that unified the performances of multiple musicians who had great freedom over other musical parameters like harmony.  Though very much like Stockhausen, he was very interested in giving musicians meaningful choices —“positive freedom”—not just eliminating a few explicit prohibitions while leaving in place ingrained habits of thoughts.

Ornette’s Harmolodic theory in this sense represented a rejection of hierarchical social formations in favor of a more Rousseauian conception with strong anarchist tendencies along the lines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  Put another way, the project that is and was “Harmolodics” can be compared with Paulo Freire‘s statement about “critical pedagogy”:

“Cultural action either serves domination (consciously or unconsciously) or it serves the liberation of men and women.”

Ornette tended to view the rules governing music in relation to linguistics.  He once pondered in an interview:

“Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?  Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?”

(“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004).  This appears like a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  But beyond linguistics, Ornette’s theories can also be understood with reference to psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacan discussed symbolic matrices that group symbols in signifying chains.  Even a series of individual random events can be grouped in a symbolic matrix that prohibits certain combinations.  A series of coin tosses provides an illustration.  For example, after a coin toss of heads, the immediately next coin toss can never result a sequential pair of tails results in a symbolic matrix of paired coin toss results.  In this sense the signifying chain of the symbolic matrix keeps track of previous (historical) result.  And by developing an impossibility in the signifying chain, this is like a spelling or grammatical rule.  See Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Lanugage and Jouissance, pp. 14-20.  Language is the result of socialization that imposes limiting social norms.  The categories and filters that language—including musical language—provides result in a kind of barring or alienation of certain things that precede that language.  Fink, pp. 24-26.  In Ornette’s case, it is not difficult to imagine how his Halmolodics theories were influenced by the particular socialization imposed on him growing up poor as a second-class citizen in Jim Crow America, with ambitions to break with a symbolic matrix that, in a sense, rendered impossible any next step that left behind the social repression he experienced.  Or the way his anarchist tendencies perhaps suggested a complete rejection of socialization. And in the purely musical realm, this manifested itself in a rejection of syntactic restrictions on fixed (i.e., socialized) rules of harmonic progression  (i.e., musical training since Rameau) that rendered certain next pitches/harmonies symbolically impossible.

Still unanswered by all this in practice is what is put in place of the existing symbolic matrix in a musical group setting.  Unconscious aspects must still be accounted for that individual performers bring with them.  There must be some accounting for the way individual contributions come together in collective performance.  This leads to the matter Stockhuasen noted:

“The famous anarchism is the ‘spiritual background’ which allows a place for everything and everybody without taking account of the fact that a certain object that you use, let’s say a triad, is not the same as any other sound object that’s less common or less simple.  There’s a natural differentiation among things, and if you just leave them the way they fall then they function the way they are, which means some of these elements immediately oppress and dominate others, even acoustically cover others.  What remains in your head after hearing such a piece are these few elements which are the most redundant.  If there’s no choice, then things create their own hierarchy.  If you don’t want to balance out something, you wind up with a nonintegrated situation.”

This is the problem of “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”  Ornette spoke much less explicitly about these issues, but his concrete activities with his various bands and recordings of his work provide some clues that might explain how he implicitly accounted for them.

The zen monk Ejo Takata had a keisaku (a wooden stick with a flat end used to strike meditating zen students who lapsed in concentration) that was engraved on the striking end with characters that said, “I can’t teach you anything.  Learn by yourself—you know!”  I like to think that, on its face, “Harmolodics” involved some kind of similar urging to self-directed learning, rather than the passive acceptance of dictated demands.  Of course, Ornette would never hit people with sticks!  His approach was much more like that of “critical pedagogy”.  But one of the enigmas about him was that his compositions were profoundly violent, in their attacks on both the objective/symbolic violence and the systemic/structural violence of the hegemonic culture — just as violent as Gandhi.  On the other hand, “Harmolodics” also involved unstated influence, and one of the things that Ornette’s compositions accomplished was to establish a coherent framework for judgments as to value equivalencies of different musical elements.  This is very similar to the way the origins of financial accounting and monetary systems involved establishing a framework for equating the values of different commodities.  Here it is a matter of establishing value equivalencies for elements like melody, harmony and rhythm, and the various contributions of individual performers.  Ornette had a much looser and democratic way of approaching that question than most contemporaries.  Though there were still boundaries, mostly established through selection of performers (i.e., deciding who is included and who is excluded from the group), rehearsal format (i.e., the settling of pre-performance “debate”), and the like.  These factors and boundaries were almost never reflected in a written score, but were still significant to resulting performances.  When people express confusion as to what constitutes Harmolodics, the core of that confusion is really Ornette’s failure to document these latter factors that are external to purely musical notation.

See also “Ornette Coleman, Through the Systemic Functional Linguistics Lens”

The Shape of Jazz to Come: A Guide to the Music of Ornette Coleman

A guide by Syd Fablo, Bruno Bickleby, and Patrick.

Introduction

 

This is a guide to the music of Ornette Coleman.  Albums are listed chronologically by recording date, broken down into multiple periods of his life and career and supplemented with biographical information.  Outtake and various artists collections are shown indented and with smaller font and images.  Bootlegs are listed, indented, but images and details are provided for only a few selected bootlegs that are of particular significance.  Guest and sideman appearances are listed separately toward the end.  Book, film/video/TV, and web site resources about or featuring Ornette are listed at the end.  The authors also provide curators’ picks and some other items of interest at the end.  While there are some compilations and box sets of Ornette’s work available, note that (with one exception) most focus on only a narrow period of time or are explicitly record label specific — the most significant of the label-specific ones being Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings.  It is somewhat unfortunate that many of Coleman’s recordings are currently out of print.  Moreover, unlike the deluge of archival, outtake and bonus material issued for certain other famous musical contemporaries of Ornette, there has been comparatively little of such material by him officially released to date.


A Brief Biography

 

Birth Name: Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman

Born: March 19, 1930 (or possibly March 9, 1930), Fort Worth, TX.

Died: June 11, 2015, New York, NY.

Ornette received almost no formal musical training, and was a noted autodidact.  Reports of him being unable to read music are often exaggerated in order to present him as a kind of primitive musical savant, rather than as someone from humble roots who willfully bucked convention.  Though he began playing music professionally while still a teenager, it was not until he was in his late 20s that he recorded as a bandleader and he was almost 30 years old before he found success as a solo act — rather late by typical jazz standards.  His music was resisted and disliked by many, but he showed an uncommon amount of “grit” in sticking with it despite adversities and setbacks.  Listeners tend to have a “love him or hate him” sort of reaction.  Usually described as shy (i.e., introverted), he also struck many as an unusual guy for his mannerisms and outlook on life.  He eventually developed his own musical theory that he dubbed “Harmolodics”, which he insisted can be applied to how one conducts their own life and to other artistic forms.  Often he described himself as a composer who performs.  “Lonely Woman” was his first “Harmolodic” composition, and is perhaps his best-known song.  One-time collaborator Pat Metheny said about him, “Ornette is the rare example of a musician who has created his own world, his own reality, his own language – effective to the point where emulation and absorbtion [sic] of it is not only impossible, it is simply too daunting a task for most musicians to even consider.”  His career (and fortunes) ebbed and flowed, with periods of intense activities and long stretches of public inactivity.  He nonetheless came to be regarded as one of America’s greatest musical innovators.  He also had a considerable art collection, and partly due to those interest notable contemporary artworks were reproduced on many of his albums, on the cover, back and/or inserts.  At least after achieving career success, he was a dapper dresser, often wearing brightly colored custom made suits.  His sister Truvenza (Trudy) Coleman also had a musical career, though she did not work with her brother professionally.


Legend

🎷🎷🎷 = top-tier; an essential

🎷🎷 = second tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more

🎷 = third tier; a lesser release, for completists only



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