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Braxton and the Beast

Once upon a time, a major label not only signed but supported one of the most uncompromising radicals in jazz.

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ANTHONY BRAXTON THE COMPLETE ARISTA RECORDINGS OF ANTHONY BRAXTON (MOSAIC)

The music on the eight-disc box set The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton doesn't do much to betray its era. Dave Holland's amplified double bass might help an attentive listener guess that the tracks where it appears date from that unfortunate stretch of the 70s when the natural sound of the instrument was considered unfashionable, but otherwise everything about this material—the compositions and the performances alike—sounds fresh and timeless.

Given that the recordings were originally released by Arista—it's right there in the title—you could figure out they aren't recent, even if all you know about Braxton is that he works in jazz. These days major labels only barely acknowledge the genre, relegating it to boutiquey subsidiaries like Blue Note, Nonesuch, and Emarcy, but there was a time when a mainstream label would not only sign a bold, idiosyncratic artist like Braxton but would support him in some of his most ambitious and least commercial projects. Between 1974 and 1982 Braxton had nine Arista releases, which filled 13 LPs and ranged from improvisations on solo saxophone to a massive two-hour composition for four orchestras. This is the first time most of that music has been reissued on CD.

In the early 70s there was still some overlap between progressive jazz and progressive rock, and jazz had a significantly larger popular audience than it does today—it wasn't outlandish for a big label to expect to make money on a jazz reedist. And as trombonist and music scholar Mike Heffley writes in the box set's extensive liner notes, Braxton "was once the prime candidate for the crossover marketing and promotion offered by a major label." In some ways that's hard to imagine now—Braxton, currently tenured at Wesleyan, has become famous for his hyperintellectual bent, the bruising rigor of his music, and his blatant disregard for marketability.

But the picture was different in '74. At that point Braxton had already established his radical bona fides. He'd recorded the first-ever solo saxophone record, For Alto, for Delmark in 1969, and shortly afterward left Chicago for Paris as part of the crucial exodus by members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, that also included the Art Ensemble, Wadada Leo Smith, and Leroy Jenkins. But he'd also made his mastery of mainstream jazz perfectly clear—in '70 and '71 he'd played in Circle, a dynamite postbop collective with Holland, pianist Chick Corea, and drummer Barry Altschul, and in '72 he appeared on Holland's seminal ECM album Conference of the Birds. Corea became a crossover star shortly after Circle disbanded, and when Braxton returned to the States in '74, having just recorded his first standards album in Denmark, Arista signed him.

Braxton's inaugural Arista release was New York, Fall 1974, a veritable omnibus that includes hard-driving, breathtakingly complex postbop recorded with Holland, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and drummer Jerome Cooper; an abstract duet with Moog synthesizer player Richard Teitelbaum; and a stunning piece with Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett, and Oliver Lake—all future members of the World Saxophone Quartet—that presaged the rise of the four-sax format. Since his very first recordings in '68, Braxton has treated his compositions as a way to explore specific ideas—there's a reason people have written entire books to parse his work—and here he uses even the relatively straightforward jazz numbers to experiment. Opus 23B is an atonal variation on the bebop classic "Donna Lee," and the through-composed Opus 23C has a sort of "Twelve Days of Christmas" structure, accreting additional material with every repetition of its theme. (Braxton's tunes are all titled with geometric diagrams that look like parts of flowcharts or schematics of molecules, but thankfully he also provides numbers.)

What makes Braxton so special is that while he's certainly a loopy egghead, he's a loopy egghead who plays with such wholehearted, bloody-minded passion that even his most academic efforts rarely sound stiff. His second Arista album, Five Pieces 1975, made with Holland, Wheeler, and drummer Barry Altschul, perfectly captures his reckless energy and all-consuming drive: it consists of pell-mell postbop originals like those on New York, Fall 1974 (plus a cover of "You Stepped Out of a Dream" that sounds ready to fly apart), and Braxton pushes himself so hard that despite his formidable technical skill he sometimes flubs notes, squeaks, or briefly loses his grip on intonation. He's not trying to perfectly re-create an established musical model—he's trying to find its breaking point.

Braxton's next Arista album, Creative Orchestra Music 1976, is still one of the greatest achievements of his career. It also makes it clear how valuable his major-label backing was. Recorded in February of that year, it employed as many as 20 players, including heavies from both the straight-ahead and avant-garde scenes—Wadada Leo Smith, Jon Faddis, Cecil Bridgewater, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Karl Berger, Seldon Powell, Roscoe Mitchell—and that lineup didn't come cheap. The opener, Opus 51, scales up the small-group postbop from the previous LPs into a furiously charging big-band workout with ultratight sectional arrangements and powerful blasts of simultaneous soloing. Opus 56 takes a 180 into a slow-moving exploration of sonic space and nonidiomatic improvisation, invoking the radical music of the AACM and the contemporary European composers Braxton had long admired. And Opus 58 is a clear homage to John Philip Sousa, a parade march broken up with wide-open sections that allow Braxton, Faddis, Smith, and Lewis to uncork wild solos.

Six months later, in August 1976, Braxton got together with pianist Abrams, an old AACM colleague from Chicago, to record Duets 1976, whose richly varied program made room for takes on the Scott Joplin classic "Maple Leaf Rag" and Eric Dolphy's "Miss Ann" as well as a number of originals employing atonal techniques that were intended to challenge the rigidities and hierarchies of the Western harmonic system. Like early AACM recordings, these pieces are conversational and spontaneous despite their rigor and daring. The influence of the AACM also hangs over Arista release number five, For Trio, which Braxton recorded in Chicago in 1977. It contains two versions of the lengthy Opus 76, one with Henry Threadgill and Douglas Ewart and the other with Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, with every player using a veritable arsenal of winds as well as a complement of what the AACM famously called "little instruments"—gongs, hand drums, shakers, bells, homemade flutes, and other noisemakers—a context that harks back to Braxton's first album under his own name, 3 Compositions of New Jazz, with Smith and Leroy Jenkins.

Next came the sprawling three-LP set For Four Orchestras, recorded in May 1978, for which Braxton enlisted four conductors and four groups of 39 Oberlin College students—he composed its dense, challenging two-hour symphony but didn't play in the massive multiple ensemble. He was clearly trying to take advantage of his major-label resources while he could, and Steve Backer, the forward-looking executive producer of the Arista jazz series, deserves credit for devoting time, energy, and money to such an over-the-top venture.

From there Braxton went to the other extreme: in November '78 and June '79 he cut the double solo LP Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979. Among his Arista recordings, it might be the most important to his later output. Throughout his career he's used the demanding solo format to develop ideas for subsequent small-group and large-band outings, and here he devotes each piece to an investigation of a different technique—slap tonguing, trilling, unusual harmonies and scales—often playing with the same headlong abandon he brought to Five Pieces 1975. Then it was back to another disc to which he contributed music but not musicianship: on For Two Pianos, recorded in 1980 and released in '82, classical pianists Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzewski perform his Opus 95.

Braxton's ninth Arista release, and by no means a minor entry in his catalog, is also the only concert recording in this box set. The 1976 double LP The Montreux/Berlin Concerts includes killer live material from '75 with Wheeler, Holland, and Altschul—the same group that played on Five Pieces, sounding even stronger and bolder with some gigs under its belt—as well as a set from the following year where brilliant trombonist George Lewis replaces Wheeler.

Since his departure from Arista, Braxton has continued to produce music at an impressive rate—in the past two years alone he's released no fewer than 20 CDs, not counting the eight in this set or the nine discs of his compositions for piano played by Genevieve Foccroulle. They've all been on small independent imprints, and it's safe to assume that he won't turn up on a major label again anytime soon—especially since his teaching job at Wesleyan, through which he often recruits new players, is paying his bills. On one hand I can't help but wish the music business could still support Braxton, or anyone like him, with high-profile releases and big-time resources, but on the other I know that the real enduring power of these recordings has nothing to do with who underwrote them—it comes from the breadth, passion, and adventurousness of the music itself.v

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