A Headful of Braxton

Anthony Braxton
Donna Lee
America : 1975

AB, alto; Michael Smith, piano; Peter Warren, bass; Oliver Johnson, drums.

Brooklyn is suffering something of a Braxton hangover, after the rousing four-day festival of shows at the newly opened Roulette last week. We figured some hair of the dog might get us all through.

While many would argue Braxton’s music reached full bloom later in his career, there are some wonderful early recordings that haven’t been given the attention they deserve. One gem that you might have overlooked is Donna Lee, recorded in 1972, and released by America in 1975.

It contains a two-part version of the standard “You Go To My Head,” which has been covered by everyone from Marlene Dietrich and Billie Holiday to Louis Armstrong and Lee Morgan to Bryan Ferry and Rufus Wainwright. Braxton has often been criticized for his, let’s say, uneven interpretations of various jazz classics over the years. But we dare anyone to defy the brilliance of his interpretation of this hallowed chestnut.

His version starts out faithfully, with the band patiently and almost imperceptibly building the song into something denser and more abstract, as Braxton’s sax single-mindedly mines the melody for variations. It eventually boils over into a controlled cacophony – you can feel the tune going to Brax’s head without his ever quite losing “the head.” Toward the end, a walking bassline tethers the song to a more recognizable semblance of its original form, but Braxton refuses to completely abandon the accrued abstraction and acceleration.

His own Comp. 23K features a stately horn line pitted against some unsettling rumbling created by the rhythm section. It evokes for us images of someone patiently navigating their way through a haunted house. Give this short tune a few spins – it’s eerie and indelible.

TELL US IN THE COMMENTS: What’s your favorite Braxton album? Or period of his music? Or highlights of the just-concluded Roulette run of shows?

Discussion11 Comments Category Anthony Braxton Tags , , , , ,

11 Responses to A Headful of Braxton

  1. For me, it’s anything that combines Holland and Altschul with Braxton. Those recordings fit my taste perfectly.

    I particularly love the Holland’s classic ‘Conference of the Birds’, but under Braxton as a leader it’s probably ‘Quartet (Dortmund) 1976′ that really sets the mark for me.

  2. Dortmund, Willisau, Iridium. In that order. And then again in reverse.

  3. My first Braxton love was “New York, Fall 1974.” Why change now?

  4. In no particular order, a top five of Creative Music Orchestra 1976, Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984, Five Pieces 1975, Willisau (Quartet) 1991 and Six Monk’s Compositions sounds about right. Holland’s ‘Conference …’ is an old fave, and I also quite enjoyed the Beyond Quantum record Braxton did with William Parker and Milford Graves a couple of years ago.

  5. I would argue that Braxton’s apogee was the 1985-1993 period that began with the triumphant UK tour and reached a fever pitch with the Quartet’s final bow. Braxton was working at the top of his game on all fronts: the brilliant Quartet records on Black Saint, Leo and Hat Hut; the vivid Ensemble albums on BS, Leo and Hat again; thrilling all-star collaborations in Victoriaville 1988 and with Evan Parker, Paul Rurherford, Tony Oxley; killer concept records: Standards, Monk, Warne Marsh and Charlie Parker; Composition 96; and, of course, his solo music which I feel was never better heard to great advantage in London 1988 and at Wesleyan 1992 (and Allentown 1991 in a recently posted bootleg). And to think there was even more. To pack the achievement of just the classic Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway into these 8 years would make anybody’s entire career. To do the rest is astounding. From here Braxton largely retreated into GTM and his student ensembles. While I wouldn’t deride these efforts the way some do, I feel like the ensuing years represented a slowing down, which is easy to understand. Luckily it seems that Braxton is experiencing a renaissance that just might rival it all.

  6. My first encounter with Braxton’s music was his group with Holland, Altschul and Wheeler.
    Especially his compositions series 23 and 40 made an (ever) lasting impression on me.
    Later his LEO recordings with Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway really propelled me again into unchartered territory.

    The first CD ever I bought was Creative Music Orchestra 1976. The LP I had was “listened into pieces”…

    Although his GTM was a less impressive era for me, I continued to follow his output as close as possible.

    Another big favourite of mine is the trio with Tony Oxley and Adelhard Roidinger.

    And Composition No.96 or 2 Compositions (Järvenpää) 1988 or a more recent highlight Quartet (Moscow) 2008.

    Not to forget his recording with William Parker and Milford Graves or György Szabados and Vladimir Tarasov……..

  7. It’s fun to go back and listen to stuff like this and to see/hear how far away from it he is now… and how far he isn’t. Keep in mind that the band on Donna Lee wasn’t – as far as I know – a working band like the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway unit, but Smith, Warren and Johnson acquit themselves in both his pieces and the covers.

    I like his current work as well as I do past work (the operas have blown me away). But Anthony said something to me a couple years ago that I thought really interesting: “the fact that people still talk about me means that I’m not the one [who will really change the music].” It was a very self-effacing remark but what I gather is that he views himself as someone who’s doing the creative work now, in this time period, so that the next generation can REALLY get things going. That’s not to say that his music isn’t important or interesting (I’d say the contrary), but leaving a lot of dynamic space for what isn’t happening yet to occur… that’s a pretty cool approach. It’s certainly one among many valid approaches to making work, but the generativeness… that makes me happy and want to work hard.

    Amen to the trio with Oxley and Roidinger. That’s a little-discussed gem.

    The Falling River Music really impressed me – I could have listened to that piece all night, though it was only 25 minutes or so.

  8. I think it all crystallizes for me in the Willisau 4-CD set. I can’t say it covers all his bases, but it certainly is my all-time fave of the quartet. Of his later period, I really love the Iridium box. For the Holland/Altschul era, I actually prefer the quartet pieces on “Montreux/Berlin” to Dortmund. But I also have deep love and soft spots in my heart for:
    “Three Compositions of New Jazz”–the vocals slay me every time.
    “Creative Orchestra Music 1976″
    “Quintet (Basel) 1977″–great to hear Muhal in the context of Braxton
    “For Trio”
    “Six Compositions: Quartet” (Antilles)–another great pick-up quartet who really do justice to his compositions
    “Compositions 10 & 16 (+101)”–a very special session
    Also, live Wesleyan recordings of Echo Echo Mirror House have really been stretching my mind. Oh, for a quality studio recording of this stuff!

  9. Creative Orchestra (Koln) is probably the one I’d take to the desert island, if I could only have one. The only flaw is Brax doesn’t actually play on it!

    Then maybe Montreux/Berlin concerts (though Dortmund is close), and… well, there’s a lot. The trio with Parker and Rutherford is amazing too. Maybe the Santa Cruz Quartet and the Arista alto solos, and the Black Saint Four (Ensemble) Compositions 1992 for a wild card. (And Sam, nice call on For Trio — it reminds me of Mauricio Kagel.)

  10. Thanks for posting these. Haven’t heard this record for some time and I look forward to revisiting it.

    It’s tough for me to nail down my favorite Braxton. However, I first heard “New York, Fall 1974″ in 1993 (thank you Henrico County Public Library!) and it changed/destroyed my life. This is an essential release and Mosaic has done a great service by putting it back in circulation. Others have already mentioned some classics (e.g. Dortmund!!!), so I’ll throw out two favorites of mine that haven’t been mentioned yet. The Sackville record (“Trio & Duet” i think) is really nice, especially Composition No. 36 w/Leo Smith & Teitelbaum. I’m surprised “Performance Quartet 1979″ hasn’t been mentioned yet. Ray Anderson, John Lindberg, and Thurman Barker. A live recording with 23G and many from the 69 series. It’s great!

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