anthony braxton | part one

creativeconstructioncompany.jpgCREATIVE CONSTRUCTION COMPANY (Muse MR 5071)

Leroy Jenkins / violin, viola, recorder, etc., Anthony Braxton / reeds, flute, chimes, Leo Smith / trumpet, horns, and percussion, Richard Abrams / piano, cello, clarinet; Richard Davis bass, Steve McCall / drums. Recorded: May 19, 1970 in concert.


TOWN HALL 1972 (Japan Trio PA 3008-9)

Anthony Braxton / alto sax, various reeds and percussion, David Holland / bass, Phillip Wilson (Part 1 only) / percussion, John Stubblefield (Part 2 only) / tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet, percussion, Jeanne Lee (Part 2 only) / vocal; Barry Altschul (Part 2 only) / percussion. Recorded: May 22, 1972 in concert.

trioandduetsackville.jpgTRIO AND DUET (Sackville 3007)

Anthony Braxton / clarinets, alto sax, chimes, bass drum, Leo Smith (Side 1 only) / various brass and percussion, Richard Teitelbaum (Side 1 only) / synthesizer and percussion, David Holland (Side 2 only) / bass. Recorded: Probably 1974.


NEW YORK, FALL 1974 (Arista AL 4032) Anthony Braxton / alto saxophone, flute, various reeds, Kenny Wheeler / trumpet and flugelhom, Dave Holland / bass, Jerome Cooper / drums, Richard Teitelbaum (One track only) / synthesizer, Leroy Jenkins (One track only) / violin, Julius Hemphill (One track only) / alto sax, Oliver Lake (One track only) / tenor sax, Hamiet Bluiett (One track only) / baritone sax. Recorded: September 27 and October 16, 1974.

fivepieces1975.jpgFIVE PIECES 1975 (Arista AL 4064)

Anthony Braxton / alto saxophone, clarinet, sopranino saxophone, flute, alto flute, contrabass clarinet, Kenny Wheeler / trumpet and flugelhorn, Dave Holland / bass, Barry Altschul / drums. Recorded: July 1 and 2, 1975.

Anthony Braxton’s first musical contributions were as part of the group Creative Construction Company with Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith, and Steve McCall. With them, he helped create a music that was every bit as advanced as that of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, considered by many to be the most advanced improvisational unit to emerge in the late Sixties. The group with Braxton employed a somewhat more “modern” vocabulary than the Art Ensemble and made fewer stylistic references to earlier forms. The references that were there were well integrated into the music as a whole, generally surfacing in the midst of free improvisation rather than being structured in beforehand. The group’s Delmark LP (Anthony Braxton, Three Compositions of New Jazz, minus McCall and with pianist Richard Abrams) and the first BYG album (Anthony Braxton, Actuel 15) were their most essential recordings, though the opening track on This Time… (BYG Actuel 47) was also quite good.

Now a record has been issued on Muse that features the group in concert some months later with the addition of Richard Davis and Richard Abrams. The LP’s two compositions (played consecutively without break) are by Leroy Jenkins, and it is Jenkins who is most prominently recorded. He and Braxton build layers of lyrical sound around which an array of counter lines and rhythmic figures occur. The lyricism, however, is frequently only momentary and may be left dangling while the more percussive sounds take over. Smith’s playing is closer to someone like Lester Bowie than to either Braxton or Jenkins, and while the latters’ creations consist of gracefully spiraling lines and motifs, Smith works more with spurts and fragments of sound. McCall, meanwhile, fades back from the music or else hovers over it, virtually defining its shape at any given moment. Davis and Abrams add a greater density to the group’s sound and also a greater textural elasticity. These are also the ways in which this recording is very different from the BYG material, though Jenkins’ playing seems looser in the “live” context and there is perhaps a greater edge to the music as a whole.

newyorkfall74sleevedetail.jpgBraxton, of course, eventually began to pursue more of his aesthetic ends on his own, and the later LPs reviewed mark the emergence of Braxton as composer as well as improviser. (The first solo alto album For Alto, Delmark 420/421, might also be taken as indicating such a point of departure.) In a certain sense, Braxton’s compositional forays are not so different from the processes that improvising musicians have always employed. They are pre-determined structures that include improvisation. But whereas in the past jazz compositional thrusts have been mainly tied to stylistic trends or particular periods or schools of improvisation (bop, swing, etc.) Braxton utilizes various approaches, musical formats, and instrumentations, and these are tied integrally to what he means to convey in any particular piece. Also, whereas other players’ music changed at different periods of their careers, Braxton is one of the first musicians whose roots are in improvisation to attempt to work in so many contexts simultaneously. This is why Braxton as a composer is different from earlier jazz instrumentalists who composed and why it makes most sense to refer to him as a composer, or at least as a composer-instrumentalist. If there is a link connecting all of his work, it may be his insistence on working from various shapes and letting those shapes govern the improvisations they are meant to set up (different, say, from using the shapes to give rise to more forward-moving improvisational constructs). But the shapes differ from piece to piece, within pieces, or between groups of pieces. Perhaps the most important work on these several LPs is “HM – – 421” (side one of Trio and Duets). Formally, Braxton appears to still be drawing on the fund of ideas gleaned from his association with the AACM, but he approaches them now from a more reductionist standpoint.

The piece is largely fixed in its overall design – this observation is based on having also heard this piece performed live, March 1, 1975 – and is beautifully concise. A balance of compositional and improvisational elements is achieved, the difference between the two being frequently blurred. The piece moves in waves of electronic and acoustic sound, tending to draw you into its space, yet not to enclose you there. The incorporation of the synthesizer into the work is masterly, the electronic offerings serving as an extension of the instrumental ones and appearing neither self-conscious nor extraneous to the total composition. Based on this piece and the short duo track on Fall ’74, it would be interesting to hear more of Braxton’s work with Richard Teitelbaum.


The Fall ‘74 album and the newly released Five Pieces present a series of compositional miniatures. Short tunes with twisting, turning heads make up the bulk of the compositions, calling to mind certain early pieces of Lennie Tristano. (A portion of “BOR” on Five Pieces also recalls Parker’s “Donna Lee.”) The more intense of these pieces are on Fall ’74 (a fantastic alto solo is on the opening track) but on Five Pieces Braxton appears to be working more on expanding the tunes’ structural bounds. The main event on “G-647,” for example, is a percussion solo, while on “4038” and “489 M” contrasting shapes are set against each other. Fall ’74 also features a blustering saxophone quartet and a short track on which Leroy Jenkins is added. Of the two, Fall ‘74 is the more noteworthy album, but Five Pieces suggests other possibilities.

The opening track on Five Pieces and the second side of Trio and Duet features Braxton playing “standard” tunes with Dave Holland. These are relatively light, if pleasant, renditions that can seem alternately absorbing or else plodding and overlong, depending on one’s disposition. The best of these may be “Dream” on Five Pieces.

In retrospect, the Town Hall LP seems somewhat more transitional in nature than the definitive statement it appeared on first hearing. Certainly Jeanne Lee’s stunning song realization (on the second part of the program) is as vital as ever. But the piece is not yet the distilled essence of Braxton’s art that we hear on “HM – – 421.” The same might be said of the trio portion of the program. There’s nothing really “wrong” with it, but it lacks the intense inner necessity that is displayed on Braxton’s solo LP (Series F America 011 – 012) from this same period. Town Hall can thus be seen as an important documentation leading toward later, more concentrated musical expressions.


What, then, to make of Braxton’s music? His most far reaching contribution would seem to be his use of the structural contours of his pieces (their shapes) as the principal improvisational focus (different from working with a series of chord changes, “modal” changes or with a more forward-moving rhythmic base). This is an idea, certainly, that has long been implied – at least since Monk (and Parker too occasionally improvised in this way, as on “Donna Lee” or the first “Klactoveedsedstene“) – but Braxton is one of the first to make such an extensive and all-pervasive use of it. The flexibility of this approach is such that you can both have your cake and eat it. If the shape is very fragmented, it will open up a considerable amount of rhythmic/harmonic space (and this will be true, regardless of the shape’s density); if the shape is more linear, it will not exactly close the space off, but it will allow the figure to stand in very high definition. Braxton makes use of both of these possibilities, either by themselves (hear especially the solo albums), or by combining them within the same piece (”HM – – 421” or “489-M“).

The importance of Braxton’s music lies in its scope and in a certain tendency toward musical expansion through isolation of its elements. This is what his use of the various structural contours of his pieces implies. It’s a composer’s awareness, really, one never before wedded so thoroughly nor so closely to improvisation, and particularly to the feeling of improvisation associated with the history of jazz.

Henry Kuntz, 1975


selected Anthony Braxton recordings


Anthony Braxton biography:

Anthony Braxton (born June 4, 1945) is an American composer, saxophonist, clarinettist, flautist, and pianist.

He has created a large body of highly complex work. Much of Braxton’s music is jazz oriented, but he has also been active in free improvisation and orchestral music, and has written operas. Among the vast array of instruments he utilizes are the flute; the sopranino, soprano, C-Melody, F alto, E-flat alto, baritone, bass, and contrabass saxophones; and the E-flat, B-flat, and contrabass clarinets.

Critic Chris Kelsey writes that “Although Braxton exhibited a genuine — if highly idiosyncratic — ability to play older forms (influenced especially by saxophonists Warne Marsh, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, and Eric Dolphy), he was never really accepted by the jazz establishment, due to his manifest infatuation with the practices of such non-jazz artists as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Many of the mainstream’s most popular musicians (Wynton Marsalis among them) insisted that Braxton’s music was not jazz at all. Whatever one calls it, however, there is no questioning the originality of his vision; Anthony Braxton created music of enormous sophistication and passion that was unlike anything else that had come before it.”

Braxton’s music is highly theoretical and mystically influenced, and he is the author of multiple volumes explaining his theories and pieces—such as the philosophical three-volume Triaxium Writings and the five-volume Composition Notes, both published by Frog Peak Music. While his compositions and improvisations can be characterized as avant garde, many of his pieces have a swing feel and rhythmic angularity that are overtly indebted to Charlie Parker and the Bebop tradition.

Braxton is notorious for naming his pieces as diagrams, typically labeled with cryptic numbers and letters. (Sometimes the letters are identifiable as the initials of Braxton’s friends and musical colleagues.) Sometimes these diagrams have an obvious relation to the music — for instance, on the album For Trio the diagram-title indicates the physical positions of the performers — but in many cases the diagram-titles remain inscrutable. (Braxton has pointedly refused to explain their significance, claiming that he himself is still discovering their meaning.) Braxton eventually settled on a system of opus-numbers to make referring to these pieces simpler, and earlier pieces have had opus-numbers retrospectively added to them.

In 1994, he was granted a MacArthur Fellowship.

Beyond his musical career, Braxton is an avid chess player; for a time in the 1960s he was a professional chess hustler, playing in New York in Washington Square Park.

Early in his career, Braxton led a trio with violinist Leroy Jenkins and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and was involved with The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the “AACM”, founded in Chicago, Braxton’s birthplace.

In 1968, Braxton recorded the double LP For Alto. There had been occasional unaccompanied saxophone recordings previously (notably Coleman Hawkins’ “Picasso”), but For Alto was the first full-length album for unaccompanied saxophone. The album’s songs were dedicated to Cecil Taylor and John Cage, among others. The album influenced other artists like Steve Lacy (soprano sax) and George Lewis (trombone), who would go on to record their own acclaimed solo albums.

Braxton joined pianist’s Chick Corea’s existing trio with Dave Holland (double bass) and Barry Altschul (drums) to form the short-lived avant garde quartet “Circle”, around 1970. When Corea broke up the group, forming Return to Forever to pursue a fusion based style of composition and recording, Holland and Altschul remained with Braxton for much of the 1970s as part of a quartet, with the rotating brass chair variously filled by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, or trombonists George Lewis or Ray Anderson. This group recorded on Arista Records. The core trio plus saxophonist Sam Rivers recorded Holland’s Conference of the Birds, ECM. In the 1970s he also recorded duets with Lewis and with synthesizer player Richard Teitelbaum. In the late 1970s he recorded two large ensemble recordings, “Creative Orchestra Music 1976,” inspired by American jazz and marching band traditions, and “For Four Orchestras.” Both of these records were released on Arista.

Braxton’s regular group in the 1980s and early 1990s was a quartet with Marilyn Crispell (piano), Mark Dresser (double bass) and Gerry Hemingway (drums). It has been called “his finest and longest standing band”. [2]

Braxton has also recorded and collaborated with musicians European free improvisers such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and the Globe Unity Orchestra, or with giants from the ‘regular’ jazz world, such as Max Roach. Throughout the years Braxton has played with a wide variety of people, such as Mal Waldron, Dave Douglas, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz, Peter Brötzmann, Willem Breuker, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Andrew Cyrille, Wolf Eyes, Misha Mengelberg, Chris Dahlgren and countless others.

From 1995 to 2006, Braxton’s output as a composer concentrated almost exclusively on what he calls Ghost Trance Music, which introduces a steady pulse to his music and also allows the simultaneous performance of any piece by the performers. Many of the earliest Ghost Trance recordings were released on his own Braxton House label (now defunct). His final Ghost Trance compositions were performed with a “12+1tet” at New York’s Iridium club in 2006; the complete four-night residency was recorded and released in 2007 by the Firehouse 12 label.

In addition, during the 1990s and early 2000s Braxton created a prodigiously large body of “standards” recordings, often featuring him as a pianist rather than saxophonist. He had frequently performed such material in the 1970s and 1980s, but only recorded it occasionally; now he began to release multidisc sets of such material, climaxing in two quadruple-CD sets for Leo Records recorded on tour in 2003.

More recently he has created new series of compositions, such as the Falling River Musics that are documented on 2+2 Compositions (482 Music, 2005).

Braxton studied philosophy at Roosevelt University. He has taught at Mills College and now is Professor of Music at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, teaching music composition, music history, and improvisation. One of his children, Tyondai Braxton, also is a professional musician and guitarist with American instrumental rock band Battles.


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