PIECE ONE (Comp. 51)
PIECE THREE (Comp. 58)
Creative Orchestra Music 1976
Arista : 1976
AB, alto sax, clarinet; Seldon Powell, alto sax; Bruce Johnstone, bari sax; Ronald Bridgewater, tenor sax; Kenny Wheeler, trumpet; Cecil Bridgewater, trumpet; Jon Faddis, trumpet; George Lewis, trombone; Garrett List, trombone; Earl McIntyre, bass trombone; Jonathan Dorn, tuba; Muhal Richard Abrams, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Warren Smith, drums; Leo Smith, conductor. (For Piece Three, add: Roscoe Mitchell, bass sax; Leo Smith, trumpet; Garrett List, trombone; Jack Jeffers, bass trombone; Karl Berger, glockenspiel; Barry Altschul, snare drum; Frederick Rzewski, bass drum; Phillip Wilson, marching cymbals).
Two Testimonials (or: Come On In, The Water’s Fine)
CJC: When I was first getting into Free Jazz, Anthony Braxton was Beyond Forbidding. This was the guy who used CHEMICAL EQUATIONS FOR SONG TITLES! I mean, come on. Without hearing a note, I filed his work away as Bloodless Egghead Music. Maybe it was formally interesting, but only if you already held a composition degree from Julliard.
Fortunately I got to dispel those commonly held prejudices about Braxton pretty early. It was 1993 and I had just moved to NYC. Braxton’s quartet with Marilyn Crispell was playing the old Knitting Factory and I was so desperate for some music that I took a gamble. Since I barely knew a soul in the city, I invited my Dad to the show. Yes, my Dad. Savor the perversity: Dad’s previous jazz experience -in total – was seeing McCoy Tyner once. He had liked that and I told him this was more jazz. Jazz is jazz, right? McCoy, Braxton, how different could they be, right? He seemed to buy that incredibly spurious logic and off we went.
Neither of us were prepared for the sheer hurricane force of Braxton’s great quartet. This was incredibly physical, visceral, and deeply emotional music. You could hear echoes of the entire spectrum of jazz history from rotgut blues to elegant bebop to Crescent City funk. I’ll never forget the sight of Braxton, drenched in sweat, rocking back-and-forth as he unleashed a torrent of notes from his sax, so into the trance of the moment that his glasses flew off his head and landed two rows deep in the audience! And he kept going as if nothing had happened. It was an incandescent performance — and instantly converted my conservative corporate exec father to the free jazz fold.
But I didn’t have to see Braxton live to dispel my false notions about his music. All I had to do was put on a copy of Creative Orchestra Music 1976. It clearly demonstrates the man’s affinity for Ellington and the rest of the tradition. It showcases his mischievous sense of humor. It swings like crazy. It’s FUN.
Of course the music is also inventive and densely layered, but let’s work backwards here. Let yourself get swept away by the kaleidoscopic horn riffs and the roiling groove on “Piece One (Comp. 51).” It’s the sound of a fleet of cars barreling around the corner and smack into a street fair, the drivers getting out to argue and then starting to trade jokes. It’s the sound of a hundred off-duty taxis, each joyfully blowing their horns in tune as they cross the Brooklyn Bridge on their way home to relax at the community pool. It’s the sound of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie all playing the same raucous all-night block party. It’s the sound – briefly – of a woman pausing in the cool shade of an alleyway to retouch her lipstick. It’s the unmistakable sound of summer in the city.
DLD: Braxton came last. I don’t know if it was the professorial air — pipe, hornrims, corduroy — or the inscrutable quadratic equations posing as song titles, or both. But despite his reputation as one the main minds of jazz, I took my sweet time getting to him. I only recently saw him live for the first time and it helped bridge the gap, as it always does, revealing to me something of his humanity — a facet of his personality I’d more or less overlooked. “Piece Three (Comp. 58)” reveals something else: a genius for organization, a willingness to draw on carousels for inspiration, and what I’d like to believe is a deep, deep sense of humor.
As it begins we’re on a merry-go-round. Then, just at the minute mark, it’s time to stop the carnival, as something has gone horribly awry. Not quite out of control, but a tightly wound grind — the carousel has caught on something, and the carny is nowhere to be found. The middle portion is by turns annoyingly static and strangely beautiful; it’s exploratory, but never meandering. One senses Braxton guiding the music very carefully. Something like a parade picks up again toward minute six, and we march home with something resembling a straight face.