Not jazz, but modern composition. Anthony Braxton does not himself perform on this record. It is reminiscent of Arnold Schönberg, and also kind of presages things like Scott Walker‘s The Drift in its ritualistic elements. The performers play Highly recommended.
The most notorious — some would say infamous — release from Anthony Braxton’s tenure on Arista Records. It is a composition rooted in Arnold Schönberg and the serialists, with a multi-orchestra form similar to Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s works like Gruppen & Carré. Brief passages even resemble the minimalism of Morton Feldman and Steve Reich. This was recorded superbly, and the musicians perform well considering they were given only three hours to rehearse. It’s not terribly exciting though. There is always a kind of nagging issue with grandiose works like this that the composer is really just trying to garner social prestige by demonstrating an ability to summon resources (four orchestras are fairly expensive and capital-intensive to assemble) rather than to make any particular musical statement….listeners should decide that for themselves on this one.
Skies of America is one of the most perplexing — and frustrating — albums in the Ornette Coleman discography. For one, it was recorded with significant technical and logistical restrictions: the performance would not fit on a single LP and had to be edited for release; it was recorded in the UK and local musicians union rules prohibited Ornette’s desired staging (which would have included his regular band alongside a full symphony orchestra); and rehearsal time for the symphony was limited to the point of inadequacy.
This album was an unmistakable signpost that Ornette was having what can only be described as delusions of grandeur. The humility that was always one of the most attractive features of his music was receding. In his early career he sought to find any avenues to pursue his music, first by finding musicians who would play with him, then to having paying gigs and some recognition by other musicians. Those things seemed like enough for him for a while, though he was notoriously fickle about compensation and sought to sidestep the music industry through self-staged performances like the famous Town Hall 1962 concert. Now he seemed to be seeking external validation and acceptance by the musical establishment, the general public and the bourgeois. These weren’t exactly humble goals. By the end of the 1970s he seemed genuinely convinced (according to his mangers at the time) that he should achieve popular fame to equal that of any pop superstar, and also that he should earn millions of dollars (as he noted in interviews). If these things don’t seem to bear directly on the music, a quick comparison of his recordings from a decade earlier reveal significant departures, and these are plausible explanations for them.
The music itself is what is typically called “third stream” music: a synthesis of jazz and classical music, usually in the form of completely notated, scored music that resembles the improvisations of jazz. Ornette has mostly written music for a full symphony that sounds a bit like what his small jazz combos played, with him soloing in brief passages. Yet a nagging issue with the score is the orchestration. It makes scant use of the possibilities of a full orchestra. Mostly the players play homophonically, with the entire orchestra moving in unison (for what it is worth, conductor John Giordano re-orchestrated the entire piece in the mid-1980s, with Ornette’s assistance, and that version was performed multiple times). This brings up a number of contradictions. Ornette often spoke about “unison” as a principle of his music, but in the jazz context that meant having independently improvising players choosing to work cooperatively, whereas in the symphonic context it meant merely a kind of dictatorial power over the score that the entirely symphony plays. Also, using a full symphony seemed decadent, and the same results could seemingly be achieved using a smaller chamber group. For instance, Ornette had composed other (and underappreciated) pieces for smaller chamber groups, like “Dedication to Poets and Writers” (on Town Hall, 1962) and “Forms and Sounds” (on The Music of Ornette Coleman). In some ways, these things seemed less like musical achievements than social grandstanding, with Ornette putting a feather in his cap to say that he had commanded the sorts of resources necessary to have a full symphony perform a composition. Moreover, the insertion of Ornette playing jazz saxophone solos on a few songs seems to add little to the piece, other than to insert Ornette as a distinct and individual personality into proceedings that are otherwise dominated by the collective sound of the orchestra — though “The Men Who Live in the White House” does point to his light, airy later-career performance style. The syncopation added by the symphonic percussionists at times also seems a bit clumsy.
In all, this is a problematic recording to say the least. The underlying compositions do have merit, which does shine through. However, the way it was realized and recorded leaves much to be desired. In hindsight, this was a sign that the 1970s were going to be rocky when it came to Ornette Coleman recordings.
My own view of the album tends to vary widely depending on when I hear the album. I can listen to it and think that Ornette is a complete dilettante, and another time listen to it and think it is inspired if still hampered in how it was recorded. My feelings are mixed.
Van Dyke Parks is a notable fringe figure to fans of oddball pop music. He was associated with a number of popular and notable artists, like The Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson, Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr, John Cale, Joanna Newsom, etc. He works out of Los Angeles, and in that barren wasteland of serious culture, he was always an eccentric standout. He never really had any widespread popularity as a solo artist, but his contributions to popular works by others (The Beach Boys and Joanna Newsom loom large here) are probably why most who have heard of him know about him at all.
Song Cycle is less a work of popular music than it is composed “classical” music in the spirit of Charles Ives, who blended Euro-classical, hymns, folk, pop and more into idiosyncratic and innovative compositions. Parks simply updates the pop culture reference points — somewhat. He also draws from Tim Pan Alley, ragtime, vaudeville, bluegrass, marches, and an assortment of old-timey musical forms long since passed from popular favor. There is particular emphasis on the music of the Great Depression era, and all things uniquely American, especially Californian. This was an anti-Anglophile stance in the midst of the so-called “British Invasion” period. It also took high-brow forms of composition and places them into service of more low-brow forms. It was a serious approach to un-serious music. Parks adopts cliché/kitsch but re-contextualizes it, in an approach highly similar (in form, though not in substance) to that of the tropicalistas in Brazil around the same time. It is something of a natural — if impertinent — way to try to break out of imposed restrictions.
The characteristic Parks song jumps from one style to the next, emphasizing the cuts, contrasts and juxtapositions as much as any of the disparate styles he adopts. Any one approach hardly lasts more than a few seconds, before there is some kind of transition to something else. But as to those styles, there are many, and he’s obviously a good student of all of them. He’s even better at deftly making the transitions between the varied passages into something that doesn’t seem completely unnerving — a little perhaps, but that is entirely intentional and necessary, even, to giving this an impact. Yet for all the formal objectives and technical aptitude, Parks saves plenty of room for humor. Usually that gets lost in a work this complex and difficult to execute.
This was a lavishly produced album — the budget was more than three times what was typically allotted to a pop album at the time. Though it sat for about a year before the record label released it, and then commercially it was a flop. Many listeners fault Parks’ vocals, which aren’t much of an attraction but also aren’t entirely bad. The other frequent complaints would be coyness, lack of prettiness, willful over-complexity, ostentatious-ness, impenetrability, messiness, … this list goes on. Song Cycle may well be all those things. But it also is a very bold in its experimentation and earnest in its admiration for its sources of influence, trying to accomplish a lot without becoming arrogant. As Parks later said in an interview, “You can exalt what is humble.”
For sheer daring ambition, there aren’t all that many albums of the era (or any others) quite like this. In fact, probably the most inspiring thing about the album is how absolutely unlikely and improbable it was and is. It would be wrong to call this a perfect album. But, looking back, it is one that was headed in a good direction, even if few followed along.
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.
Finding precedent in John Cale‘s The Academy in Peril, Andrew W.K.’s 55 Cadillac is a (mostly) solo piano outing. It’s anchored in pop classical, with touches of modern classical and third-stream jazz. He’s not a pianist with the powers of Cecil Taylor, by any stretch. He does use some of the same devices Cale used decades ago, inserting sound effects and brief little interludes. This is a lot better than it deserves to be, and it’s actually about time that somebody took experimental 20th century music and tried to pull it together and make it more accessible. This isn’t a complete success, at least it’s not something to rush out and find, but after my wife listened to I Get Wet multiple times in a row and at first wanted to turn this off, she could tolerate it after it got going, which never happens with Cecil Taylor or anything of that sort.
Anthony Braxton has been a major figure in late 20th Century music and beyond. It’s fitting that his work for Arista Records has finally been comprehensively issued on CD. Although he recorded for a variety of other labels before, during and since that tenure (notably Leo Records in later years, but even including Windham Hill Records‘ subsidiary Magenta Records), it was his releases for that fledgling major label that earned him international renown. It has been a minor tragedy that so much of Anthony Braxton’s Arista material has taken so long to see re-release on CD, though it may still be some time before individual releases are available on CD aside from this pricey box set.
Describing Braxton is a difficult task, as his musical interests cover broad territory. Ostensibly he is and was a “jazz” musician. But his output on Arista showed early on that he was interested in modern composition wholly separate from the realm of the jazz tradition. Looking back, his biggest successes from this era were his efforts to cross different styles, chief among them traditional jazz, free jazz, and modern composition. Yet he stood for something more than just the man behind the curtain churning out the music on his records. It was “Braxton’s chosen arena of the independent and marginal,” as Michael Heffley’s liner notes to this box put it, that set him apart. He found ways to make his eclectic interests in smaller pleasures and out-of-the-way innovations work. And in doing so he helped set a precedent for others to keep alive music that was always something accepted only on the fringes, but was finding noticeably fewer and fewer outlets from the mid-1970s onward. He managed to redefine the terms for success for a musician in his position without compromising the integrity of his musical ideas.
While it might not be for everyone, given the generally dense and formal nature of much of the music, The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton should provide enjoyment and rewards to anyone with at least some interest in modern jazz. Whatever a potential listener has heard of Braxton’s reputation can be ignored. In part that’s because these recordings largely pre-date his reputation. Yet it’s also because things like bright horn charts and marches on Creative Orchestra Music 1976, traditional material like “Maple Leaf Rag” on Duets 1976, the ferocity of improvisation and skill of the players throughout The Montreux / Berlin Concerts, and the boldness of For Two Pianos are all immediately recognizable and enjoyable regardless of a listener’s frame of reference. There is also a sense that Braxton had a genuine and heartfelt interest in this material, however unusual by mainstream standards, which is at least a little contagious.
This Mosaic Records set does a great job with remastering the music for CD. If it does have a fault, it’s that it indulges familiar jazz snob peculiarities in the liner notes, which focus on recording information to the general exclusion of release information. The original liner notes and cover artwork from the albums compiled here are not reproduced, and it is only with considerable effort can tracks on these CDs be matched up with the names of the LPs on which they were originally released. Nonetheless, this is an excellent set, making a fairly good entry point to Anthony Braxton’s extensive catalog, and should hopefully help preserve this vital music for the future.