WHERE TO BEGIN: The end of our Braxton blogothon

COMPOSITION 40B
Anthony Braxton
Six Compositions: Quartet
Antilles : 1982

AB, alto sax; Anthony Davis, piano; Mark Helias, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums.

COMPOSITION 69M
Anthony Braxton
Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983
Black Saint : 1983
[BUY @ OmniTone / JazzLoft / DMG ]

AB, alto sax, clarinet; George Lewis, trombone; John Lindberg, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums.

It’s a problem with many jazz musicians — but it goes treble for Anthony Braxton — how and where to start listening? We know some newcomers who started exploring Braxton’s discography with interest, only to end up feeling so defeated by its size and their own lack of information that they gave up altogether. Of course, finding an ideal entry point partially depends on your taste, but it’s also true that some albums and tunes provide much better introductions than others.

So if you’ve been intrigued by what you’ve read and heard in our recent Braxton blogothon but aren’t sure where to head next, we’ve asked some Braxton experts for their recommendations. You may even find some albums here that have escaped the attentions of longtime fans. We also hope folks will hit the comments with their own suggestions and eureka moments.

GRAHAM LOCK, author of Forces In Motion:

Looking Back on the Past

The first Braxton record I remember hearing was For Trio back in 1978, but I didn’t like it and took it off after three or four minutes. I didn’t get it at all. What puzzles me is that I still remember the encounter so vividly. Apparently this strange-sounding music, with the strange-looking score on the album sleeve, had already stirred my imagination, though I had no inkling at the time.

I must have heard a few more of the Arista releases in the late 70s, though I don’t recall precisely when. I know I liked Duets 1976, with Muhal Richard Abrams, and Creative Orchestra Music 1976, pretty much as soon as I heard them – especially the joyous parade stomp of “Composition 58″ (still the first track I play to a curious visitor). But the two LPs that really confirmed me as a Braxton fan were Six Compositions: Quartet on Antilles and Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983 on Black Saint, perhaps because I heard (or misheard?) them as logical continuations of the 60s small-group jazz – Dolphy, Coltrane, Mingus, Ornette, Andrew Hill – that I had been enjoying for several years.

On the Antilles record my favorite track was the ebullient, post-bop swinger “Composition 40B,” all interlocking rhythmic trickery and dashing alto bravura. It sounded real slick, yet had real panache too, and the sax’s hiccuping derring-do always made me smile. It took me a while to appreciate “Composition 105A,” which filled side one of the Black Saint LP (now I think it’s a masterpiece), but side two had instant appeal, particularly the funny, funky “Composition 69M,” with its scampering march rhythms, little manic flourishes and comic/virtuosic sax/trombone dialogues.

From there, I delved back into the earlier quartet records on Arista, Ring and Moers (Seven Compositions 1978 tops my current oldies playlist) and, of course, I’m still crazy about the later quartet releases, notably the 1985 London and Coventry concerts on Leo and the Willisau (Quartet) 1991 box-set on Hat, for me a pinnacle of new creative music.

Before long, I came to love many other facets of Braxton’s prolific output: the tributes to Monk and Charlie Parker; the duos with Max Roach and Richard Teitelbaum; the more experimental works, like Compositions 36, 63, 95, 113 and 147 (to cite just a handful!), which began to add costumes, lights, stage sets, even fictional stories, into the mix. Then there was the history-making solo music for alto sax. My favorite here was “Composition 77E,” aka track three, side two of the Sound Aspects Anthony Braxton/Robert Schumann Quartet LP. I heard it as ancient lament: long, yearning cries that rose and fell (in pitch and dynamics); a tremor of ghostly vibrato.

I want to recommend any and all of these tracks. Any, because I guess everyone has to find their own entry-point, depending on where they’re coming from; all, because what has held my interest and kept me a fan for 30 years is the extraordinary scope and variety of this body of work. Like Chancey’s Hall of Mirrors in “Composition 147,” Braxton’s House of Musics is a class act and, once inside, you’ll be amazed at the riches you can find there. “Just the price of his chandeliers alone would stagger your mind.”

To see Graham Lock’s latest work on Anthony Braxton, check out his article in the current issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation.

HANK SHTEAMER, Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches:

I’d love to give the nod to a favorite LP, and one which I’d wholeheartedly recommend as an entry point. The one I’ve returned to the most–I guess I’d call it, for me, the most listenable and rewarding of his releases–is Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984 on Black Saint. This is the classic ’80s quartet, but with John Lindberg on bass instead of Mark Dresser. The recordings from the 1985 British tour are often held up as the pinnacle of this period, and I can see how the lengthy collages of various pieces hold a certain wonder. But I like this record because the compositions are broken up and presented concisely, so you can really get a sense of how each one works.

As a release, it’s diverse and thus very listener-friendly. Braxton writes, “This record … documents (and gives a cross section of) my quartet music in the middle 1984 time cycle.” It’s a sampler, in other words, and functions beautifully in an introductory regard. The turbulent, whimsical No. 116 and 115–brilliantly conceived as “an accordion sound space context that stretches and contracts the sound space,” resulting in a constantly fluctuating tempo–are my favorite pieces on the record. By listening to these relatively brief performances, reading the liner notes and checking out the incredible drawings/titles (I love the ghostlike figures depicted in 110A [+108B]), you really get a sense of the totality of what it means to consider an Anthony Braxton piece. After you digest the small chunks, the uninterrupted live sets seem a lot more manageable.

And, though it might go without saying, Graham Lock’s Forces in Motion is simply one of the most informative, fun, and unpretentious music books ever written. I think someone could enjoy it as a piece of writing without even having the slightest interest in Braxton’s music. But then again, I can’t imagine reading it and not developing an insatiable curiosity about his work.

DEREK TAYLOR, Bagatellen:

I’m not much for the compositional side of Braxton’s compass, favoring instead his more spontaneously-conceived forays. Of recent provenance, Four Improvisations on Clean Feed captures the ingenuity and sprawl of his brain in the considerable company of Joe Morris, who gives as good as he gets. Turning back the calendar, I’d tap either Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds (so special to savor him in tandem with Sam Rivers in that context/vintage) or Quartet (Dortmund) 1976 on Hat, both of which balance clockwork composition and seat-of-the-britches improv beautifully.

CENTRIFUGE, If you know what I’m saying:

Like many collectors, I know what I’m looking for when I see it: I felt straight away that the name Anthony Braxton was important for me, just as i knew that it wouldn’t mean anything much yet; in the end i took a “safe” route into the music via monk, cherry-picked after that without making much attempt to understand what I was(n’t) hearing… That all changed in 2004 at the London Jazz Festival. I still didn’t hear the shape of the music as it was being played, but it was an unforgettable experience – the performance more than compensated for C.T.’s apparent disdain for having to follow it.

So… I am happy to commend Quintet (London) 2004 to the newcomer’s attention, this being the title of the music as officially released… every time I have heard this meeting replayed since that night, first as a radio broadcast and later on cd, it has sounded different to me, a sure indication of just how much music is packed into those sixty minutes. An open-minded listener will find so much to explore in here, and it’s recent enough to be timely and relevant; what better place to start, now?

…or, what the hell, join the ranks of the Dortmunders after all… the ’76 recording has so many of the warm and human qualities people don’t expect to find – just don’t get hung up on the idea that it’s the best, the greatest… these concepts mean nothing here. Ultimately, this man’s music requires reattunement of the ear – choosing a point of entry is like losing one’s virginity: don’t put pressure on it to be something special, just get it out of the way and move on! This is some of the most human art being created in our time: why are you still waiting?

AND FOR BRAXTON VETERANS WHO’RE READY TO EXPLORE OVERLOOKED AREAS OF HIS DISCOGRAPHY…

JASON GUTHARTZ, Restructures:

Most Braxton commentary (rightfully) focuses on his achievements in solo, quartet, and large ensemble contexts. There is also a substantial and compelling body of duo work. These duo contexts — especially those without predetermined structures — are perhaps unique in the light they shed on Braxton as one of the quickest minds in creative improvised music. Here, 1 + 1 = either 3 or 1; not 2.

Here’s a quick list of some recommended duo sessions (dates are recording dates):

Derek Bailey, First Duo Concert (Emanem, 1974)
Muhal Richard Abrams, Duets 1976 (Arista, 1976)
Roscoe Mitchell, Duets with Anthony Braxton (Sackville, 1976)
George Lewis, Elements of Surprise (Moers, 1976)
Max Roach, One In Two – Two In One (hatHut/hatArt/hatOlogy, 1979)
Georg Grawe, Duo (Amsterdam) 1991 (Okkadisk, 1991)
Lauren Newton, Composition 192 (Leo, 1996)
Milo Fine, Shadow Company (2004) (Emanem, 2004)

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK: What are your favorite Braxton recordings? What would you recommend as a good starting place?

Category Anthony Braxton