Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BRAXTON, Anthony

(b 4 June 1945, Chicago) Reeds, composer. He was studying music at age 17, influenced by Roscoe Mitchell; joined the AACM '66; taught harmony. He formed the Creative Construction Company and went to Europe '69, playing and recording there with the group plus Steve McCall, Muhal Richard Abrams, Art Ensemble of Chicago. He formed Circle in NYC '70 with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. He uses diagrams as titles of his own pieces, inspired by ancient mystical thought systems and attitudes towards music, but also played standards, ragtime, compositions of Warne Marsh, Charles Mingus, Monk, etc. His own music is ambitious and unclassifiable, leading to much confusion among critics. He played on an Abrams album '67, then his first as leader Three Compositions Of New Jazz '68 had Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins (b 11 March 1932, Chicago; d 24 February 2007, NYC), the trio playing about 20 instruments with Abrams added on one track, was followed by solo For Alto Saxophone, all on Delmark. The trio made Silence in Paris '69; Anthony Braxton and This Time '69-70 added drummer McCall, some of this BYG-Freedom material later on Affinity in UK.

He toured USA and Europe; returned from Italy with a group playing formal and improvised music '70-1; appeared in London c.1971, recorded with Derek Bailey (Live At Wigmore, Duo 1, Duo 2), Kenny Wheeler. Many albums, mostly on European, some Japanese labels, always with first-class jazz- based sidemen, included Creative Construction Company (two vols, '70); Recital Of Paris, The Complete Braxton '71; Circle 1&2 '72; Dona Lee '72, Together Alone '71 (duets with Joseph Jarman on Delmark), Anthony Braxton Creative Music Orchestra '72, Town Hall 1972, Four Compositions 1973; In The Tradition (vols 1 and 2), Trio and Duet '74.

Michael Cuscuna brought him back to USA and produced Arista LPs New York Fall 1974, Five Pieces 1975, Creative Orchestra Music 1976 and Anthony Braxton Live (Montreux/Berlin concerts '75-6), the last two later on Bluebird CDs. The Creative Orchestra session was Braxton's first opportunity to record with a large group and is a good intro to his wit, up to 20 pieces with very little rehearsal time ripping off six charts with enormous energy: the third for example is a straightforward march, perhaps harking back to New Orleans or a Chicago boyhood, but soloists Leo Smith, George Lewis, Braxton and John Faddis (on piccolo trumpet) take it into uncharted territory. Braxton contributed '73 Degrees --S Kelvin' to Cuscuna's Wildflowers series of LPs on Douglas '76, also played on the Cuscuna production All The Things We Are '76 on Atlantic, an unusual Dave Brubeck album and a fine one, which Brubeck said years later was a favorite of his. The Arista albums also included For Four Orchestras, a three-disc set recorded May 1978 at Oberlin, Ohio; the nearly two-hour piece is an exercise in spatial textures intended for quadrophonic sound, impossible to capture fully with two channels. He does not play on this, nor on For Two Pianos '80, but Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 is a solo set (these also on Arista). Nine Arista projects, from solo alto to For Four Orchestras with 160 pieces, were collected in an 8-CD set on Mosaic in 2008.

Other albums included Live At Moers New Jazz Festival '74 (one quartet set, one solo); Seven Compositions 1978; Anthony Braxton With The Robert Schumann String Quartet '79 on Sound Aspects (aka 8KN-(B-12)IRIO For String Quartet, a dense piece both with and without Braxton's solo horn); Performance 9-1-1979 and Composition 98 '81 were both on hat Hut, the latter both live and studio versions; Six Compositions: Quartet included Ed Blackwell. Still more albums were Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983, Composition 113 '84, the last a solo set, but like much of his music with a theatrical aspect, taking place on a North African night train. He played sopranino sax on Mitchell's 'Off Five Dark Six' (Noonah, Nessa '77); percussion with five others on The Maze ('78, also by Mitchell on Nessa and on a Chief CD); Birth And Rebirth '78, One In Two, Two In One '79 are duets with Max Roach. Working on Trillium, a series of twelve operas, he also wanted to compose for 100 orchestras linked by satellite: colour, shape, ritual, the whole history of music in an urgent attempt to communicate. Like 1974's In The Tradition, Seven Standards 1985 (two volumes on Magenta) was a homage to earlier styles: music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk etc backed by a mainstream trio and played superbly: on In The Tradition he played Parker's 'Ornithology' on a contrabass clarinet, in the '85 sets he sticks to alto sax, but all demonstrate the solid foundation on which the more adventurous work is built.

Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983 was a short-lived CD with George Lewis on it; then Braxton toured with an epochal quartet: Four Compositions (Quartet)1984 included Marilyn Crispell on piano, Gerry Hemingway on percussion and John Lindberg on bass, Mark Dresser replacing Lindberg the next year: The Coventry Concert on West Wind was a rather nasty bootleg; a British concert was issued on a limited edition three-LP set on Leo, then the complete '85 concerts from Coventry, London and Birmingham were issued on Leo two-CD sets. (During the tour the British journalists following him around were vegetarians; with puckish humour Braxton dragged them into fast-food joints while he stocked up on protein.) After many years of poverty Braxton joined the music staff at California's Mills College '86; he received tenure at Wesleyan U. in 1990. David Rosenboom replaced Crispell on Five Compositions (Quartet) 1986 on Black Saint; Duets Vancouver 1989 on Music and Arts with Braxton and Crispell saw her more than holding her own, and the '85 quartet re-formed for Willisau (Quartet) 1991, a four-CD set on hat Art (half live and half studio) with Crispell's art now so well-developed that she could have challenged for the leadership; Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993 on hat Art was another reunion (Hemingway's quartet's fifth album was Perfect World '95 on Random Acoustic, eclectic layers of unforced colour and texture).

The Aggregate had Braxton with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and was described as 'too much horning in', though Braxton sounded at home; Kol Nidre was a duet with ROVA's Andrew Voigt (both '88 on sound aspects). Six Monk's Compositions (1987) on Black Saint had a quartet with Mal Waldron, Buell Neidlinger and drummer Bil Osborne playing Monk tunes. Ensemble Victoriaville 1988 on Victo presented two pieces played by a septet including Hemingway, Evan Parker and George Lewis; 2 Compositions (Järvenpää) 1988 was made with a Finnish octet whose playing reflects Braxton's skill as a leader and the devotion he inspires. Tristano Compositions 1989 was a tribute to Tristano student Warne Marsh, with Cecil McBee, Andrew Cyrille, pianist Dred Scott and John Raskin on bass. Duo (Amsterdam) 1991 on Okka had pianist Georg Gräwe. Bassists were featured on Six Duets '82 on Cecma (John Lindberg), Eight Duets Hamburg 1991 on Music and Arts (Peter Niklas Wilson); Composition 99, 101, 107 and 138 on hat Art was a trio with Garrett List on trombone and Marianne Schroeder on piano. Duo (London) 1993 was a delight, with Parker at the first London Jazz Festival, two relaxed saxual philosophers conversing intently; the next night Trio (London) 1993 added Paul Rutherford on trombone, the threesome making entirely different conversation (both on Leo). Duo (Leipzig) 1993 on Music and Arts has his student Ted Reichman on piano and accordion, who more than holds his own, immersed in the music.

More large ensemble work extended Braxton's direction as a composer: Eugene (1989) and Four (Ensemble) Compositions '92 on Black Saint are very highly rated (the latter including 'Composition No. 96', also on Leo from '81, and a comparison is interesting); Composition No. 173 '94 on Black Saint is a multimedia piece with four actors, while Two Compositions (Ensemble) 1989-1991 on hat Art (with over 50 musicians) and Composition No. 165 '92 on New Albion (with the U. of Illinois Creative Music Orchestra) raise the question of classical vs improvisational skills. There are more albums, for example Town Hall (Trio And Quintet) 1972 on hat Art, with Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, Phillip Wilson and John Stubblefield, initially released only in Japan; and two more solo CDs (on New Albion '88 and hat Art '92).

Braxton is now the most extensively documented musician of his generation, constantly reinventing himself and rendering the word 'tradition' less than fully useful. He seems uncomfortable playing changes on standards, but his deconstruction of them can be fascinating; Knitting Factory (Piano/Quartet) 1994 on Leo has Braxton on piano, Marty Erlich on reeds, Joe Fonda on bass, Pheeroan akLaff on drums, a counterpointed re-enactment of history, standards played the way an avant-garde band might have played them during the transitional period of the late 1950s-early '60s; Piano Quartet, Yoshi's 1994 on Music and Arts is a four-CD set with Arthur Fuller replacing akLaff. The two-CD sets Solo Piano (Standards) 1995 on No More Records and 9 Standards (Quartet) 1995 on Leo (with the Fred Simmons Trio) are more variations on Braxton's musical curiosity; Compositions (Duo) 1995 on Leo has him playing flute, three clarinets and three saxes with Brett Larner on koto. Time Zones '76 on Arista, Open Aspects '82 on hat Art and Live At Merkin Hall, NYC '94 on Music and Arts are entirely improvised duets with electronic wizard Richard Teitelbaum (the first under Teitelbaum's name), ethereal, funny, intense, each one better than the last. Compositions 1, 5, 10, 16, 30-33 & 139 '97 on hat Hut has Hildegard Kleeb playing Braxton's notated works for piano, music (wrote Graham Lock) 'inspired by the unlikely trio of Schönberg, Stockhausen and Fats Waller'. October Meeting 1991/3 Quartets on Bimhaus was an Amsterdam Jazz Festival outing, a quartet with Braxton, Dresser, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink contributing four jazz standards; two-CD The Charlie Parker Project 1993 on hat Art was a sextet with Mengelberg and Bennink.

Braxton started his own label, Braxton House, and issued Sextet (Istanbul) '95 and Tentet (New York) '96, representing his latest evolution of structural models for improvisation, which never fail to engage the zest and imagination of the players; Composition No. 102 For Orchestra And Puppet Theatre (composed '82) is played by the Wesleyan (student) Creative Orchestra, a gigantic spectacular orchestral piece that transcends all the categories, full of varied rhythms, colours and inventions in a way reminiscent of Charles Ives at his spikiest. Seven CDs on Braxton House documented a new direction in 'Ghost Trance Musics', exploring a form of meditation, including Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995 (made at Wesleyan), Octet (New York) 1995 and Ensemble (New York) 1995, both made at the Knitting Factory. Lock's book Forces In Motion '88 was an account of the '85 tour, including interviews with Braxton and attempts to explicate ancient attitudes towards music; there was an expanded 30th anniversary edition in 2018 from Dover, and Lock's Mixtery '96 (published by Stride in England) is a Braxton festschrift with over 50 articles. Ronald M. Radano's New Musical Configurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique '93 would have been more useful with less academic sociology.