A Fickle Sonance
a column by
Anthony Braxton + Kenny Wheeler, 1975 Michael Wilderman©2008
The decade of the 1970s was a period of dynamic growth for Anthony Braxton, as he fully established his reputation as an unorthodox, adventurous conceptualist, a musician of uncommonly broad interests and influences, and a keen improviser. He collaborated with stylists as distinct as Derek Bailey and Dave Brubeck, devised notational strategies that extended both open-minded AACM aesthetics and closed-form Second Viennese School theories, and imagined compositions that linked ensembles on different planets. As invigorating and/or confusing as all this appeared to many at the time (when critical response to Braxton’s various projects ranged from enthusiastic praise to vehement condemnation), from a 30-plus-year perspective it’s possible to see how continually, and effectively, his diverse ideas – derived from a single creative/philosophical impulse – proposed new approaches and challenges for musicians and listeners alike, and how many of them are common practice today. And it could be (and has been, and will continue to be) argued that none of this would have occurred quite as it did if he hadn’t signed a contract to make regular recordings between 1974 and 1980 for Arista Records. The proof is in The Complete Arista Recordings Of Anthony Braxton, newly re-issued (most of it for the first time) on CD by Mosaic Records, thanks to the auspices, then and now, of Steve Backer and Michael Cuscuna.
Nevertheless, The Complete Arista Recordings fills an enormous gap in Braxton’s still-voluminous discography, one which has been neglected for an unbelievably long time. The original LPs have been out of sight for…well, ever since vinyl disappeared everywhere except used record stores, and a couple of them went out of print almost upon release. For background on how they came to be in the first place, see Bill Shoemaker’s article in the November 2008 issue of The Wire. Suffice to say the music is often stunning – beginning with the very first album, New York, Fall 1974, a milestone in Braxton’s career and one of the most important (and enjoyable) recordings in jazz history. Here’s why. As Shoemaker explains in his article, Arista signed Braxton with an eye (or ear) towards developing him into a major – that is, marketable – star (at least in jazz terms) primarily through radio airplay. Admittedly, radio was a different animal 30 years ago; jazz radio stations existed in large cities, and even rural districts were blanketed with college and “alternative” stations providing unconventional programming. (The early ‘70s, especially, were still connected in many ways to the radical, countercultural ‘60s.) Largely left to his own devices by his advocate/producer Backer, Braxton shrewdly designed an album that introduced several unexpected types of “new” composition/improvisation to the jazz lexicon, thus setting a precedent for any kind of experimentation he would subsequently wish to pursue. Side one opened with a jolting, angular post-bop melody featuring red-hot solos and a piston-driven rhythm section (“Composition 23B”) certainly accessible to anyone acquainted with, say, Ornette or Eric Dolphy, and concluded with a charming, laidback line (“Composition 23D”) that Shorty Rogers could have conceived if he had been a card-carrying Tristanoite. But the three pieces on side two are something else entirely. “Composition 38S” combined Braxton’s clarinet with Richard Teitelbaum’s synthesizers; the music is thrilling, but its rhythmic projection and textural soundscape were alien to ‘70s jazz parlance. Likewise, the ensemble-constructed counterpoint and dark, ominous atmosphere of “Composition 23A” sounded like no jazz ballad within memory, while on “Composition 37,” Braxton revitalized the prosaic classical saxophone quartet (sans rhythm section) with a compositional attitude closer to Elliott Carter’s string quartets than Benny Carter’s sectional voicings.
The music Braxton selected for New York, Fall 1974 is still memorable and surprising, and it’s possible that the album could have achieved the kind of longstanding cult status Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds or Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch did, had it been available lo these many years. As it stands, it powerfully reveals two significant themes that are woven throughout The Complete Arista Recordings; they are Braxton’s conviction in his compositional procedures, and the creative implications of his multi-instrumentalism. “Composition 37,” which has been cited as the inspiration for the World Saxophone Quartet (understandably, since founding members Hemphill, Lake, and Bluiett performed on this track), Rova, and other such groups to follow, can initially be seen as a complex extension of his own solo saxophone work, allowing him to multiply the color/texture palette by four without overdubbing (a la “Composition 22”) and simultaneously employ the interpersonal dynamics that are an intrinsic part of his compositional philosophy. From track to track, there is a momentary displacement and redirection of attention every time Braxton puts down the alto saxophone and picks up flute, or sopranino saxophone, or contrabass clarinet – often within in a single composition. Confronted on a larger scale, this same element of multi-instrumental tension is at the core of “Composition 76,” two separate versions of which, performed with different partners, make up the album For Trio. Strongly criticized on its release, in part because of its rejection of a rhythm section (and thus propulsive “jazz” rhythms) and in part because of what was thought of as a lack of cohesive material and performance style, For Trio is actually a fascinating reconciliation of AACM attitudes (which is why Braxton relied on fellow AACM’ers Henry Threadgill, Douglas Ewart, Joseph Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell to interpret the score) and post-war European compositional details. “Composition 76” consists of notated melodies, thematic modules, and graphic designs which are not read in a linear fashion, but cued in any order by each player, allowing a new construction of given material in every performance, in a manner similar to the aleatoric routing found in ‘50s scores like Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI and Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 3. By way of the consistently changing instrumentation, the music tests the tensile strength of his atonal lines, reorganizes rhythmic patterns affected by dynamic levels and shades of color, and adapts a spatial determination from the choice of details on page itself transported through the ambient placement of sounds. In performance, “Composition 76” has a ritualistic character which would become even more pronounced in later works (such as the transformational, multi-dimensional “Composition 95,” For Two Pianos, one of the seeds of his Ghost Trance Music to come), heard here in the responsible interaction of the participants, the measured pace, and even the vocal sections, which refer, in characteristic all-embracing fashion, to both traditional Japanese musical/theatrical practice and Braxton’s own doo-wop days (street corner singing being an established community ritual once upon a time too).
The fact that each of the nine releases collected in The Complete Arista Recordings offer a different instrumentation cannot be coincidental. Steve Backer, as project producer, dealt with the label’s bean counters in order to obtain a budget for each recording, and it’s likely that a few musical decisions were made in order to cut back after a particularly expensive session. Thus the vibrant and incisive Duets 1976 with Muhal Richard Abrams was scheduled after the award-winning Creative Orchestra Music 1976, and the solo Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 followed (but was released before) the leviathan 156-piece For Four Orchestras. Business dealings notwithstanding, there is never a taint of compromise attached to any of the releases; in fact, the flow of music as it appeared not only supplied an increasingly radical perspective of Braxton the composer (as opposed to the sell-out “jazz star” label with which some critics attempted to brand him), but confirmed Arista’s seemingly unquestioning support of music that certainly couldn’t have been what they had in mind when they signed him. (Perhaps Backer was a hypnotist.) For Braxton’s part, it’s apparent that the critical and popular success of Creative Orchestra Music 1976, which ranged from recognizable big swing band tactics to classical chamber ensemble strategies and loving distortions of parade music, inspired him to propose ever-more ambitious releases. The addition of the chamber piece “Composition 63” to the otherwise jazz-flavored quartet romps on the original two-LP release of The Montreux/Berlin Concerts was one such step. Though “Composition 63,” which explored the dramatic tension between free-improvised solos and notated “new music” elements, was omitted from the single CD release of The Montreux/Berlin Concerts (renamed Live when issued by RCA/Bluebird though some sort of corporate legerdemain), it has fortunately been reinstated here.
And now we must pause briefly for a DISCOGRAPHICAL ALERT: ever since its initial release, “Composition 63” has been credited to Braxton and George Lewis as soloists with the Berlin New Music Group conducted by Herr Hummel, recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie on November 6, 1976. Interestingly, the Berlin Jazz Days website’s archive has the wrong date for this performance, listing it as occurring on November 8, 1975. But Joachim Berendt, in his review of the concert in the February 10, 1977 issue of down beat, confirms that it took place at the Berlin Jazz Days ’76. However, it’s surprising that over the years no one has corrected the information that Herr (“Mr.”) Hummel is in fact Gerald Humel, an American-born conductor and composer who, during his studies in Berlin in 1964, co-founded the Gruppe Neue Musik Berlin, and continued to conduct the ensemble periodically until his death in 2005. The rest of the concert’s personnel is as yet unknown, although German flutist Eberhard Blum has told me that he performed in the group at that concert, and it’s likely that violist Jolyon Brettingham Smith and clarinetist Wilhelm Siebert, also co-founders, participated as well.
The next step, a giant leap for Braxton, was the infamous For Four Orchestras. (Those wishing to read my view of the music at the time of its release should dig up the June 7, 1979 issue of down beat.) Today, it remains a remarkable, audacious, dazzling, dizzying achievement – a nearly two-hour journey through a sinuous, ornate chromatic soundscape, far removed from any semblance of the jazz tradition. Separate from the sharply etched figuration and frequently understated, if circuitous, lyricism, what’s most striking about “Composition 82” is its epic scope. Braxton’s visionary determination here was not merely to compose a classical piece of music, but to work on a scale comparable to the huge canvases of the Abstract Expressionist painters or the protracted length of Morton Feldman’s late works, to reach a point in the experience of music that requires, yet transcends, form, where sonorous activity doesn’t merely fill but becomes the environment and attempts to transform it around us. While it still requires a serious commitment on the part of the listener, 40 years of Braxton’s music have prepared us to hear For Four Orchestras in a new light, and recognize its value in a broader context than was previously possible. This music, and that of For Two Pianos and For Trio, the most neglected of the Arista recordings, now stand on the same footing as the more popular and accessible of these releases. Allowing us the opportunity – finally – to reacquaint ourselves with this music, all of it, The Complete Arista Recordings is, simply, indispensable.