PERFORMANCE OF MARCH 9 – 14, 1976, at the Keystone Korner, San Francisco
Anthony Braxton / alto saxophone, sopranino saxophone, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, flutes, Leo Smith / trumpet, pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, wood flutes, harmonica, James Leary / bass, Phillip Wilson / drums.
So much has been written of Anthony Braxton, here and elsewhere, that another review of his music would seem to be almost superfluous; and in point of fact, I had not intended to write of these performances. But Braxton appeared here with what may be his finest band ever, and the approach taken was fairly different from the direction his music had seemed to me to be moving in – that is, somewhat reductionist in nature and more “closed” in its manner of presentation. But while the concise statement is still highly valued, Braxton’s music has opened up again, more so perhaps than at any time since the late Sixties. The results are both deeply moving and astounding – astounding because of the intensely shared collectivity of the music and because of the extent to which Braxton as a player has encompassed and integrated so many musical options into his work.
It should be said too – at the outset – that all of the references to Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, et al. should be put aside for this discussion. Whatever the similarities between their music and Braxton’s (and there are some), the reasons for this music’s being would seem to lie almost entirely within the black musical experience and to grow logically out of the multiple directions that music has been moving in since at least the mid-Fifties (and the work of Mingus, Taylor, Coleman). At its core, it is a rhythmic (if not rhythmical) expression (pulsing, breathing), having to do with rhythmic advances, cessations, and suspensions. All other aspects (melodic, harmonic, temporal, timbral) flow directly from this, yet are frequently so intertwined as to nullify the distinctions; which is to say that this is a very high form of the art indeed.
What is composition here? Pre-determined structures that set up but do not determine the improvisations that follow from than in any way. Composition becomes a technique (or control) for losing control; time becomes all time, space all space, the “tune” serving as a kind of “present” reference. Perhaps this music might best be described, then, in relation to its own relativity. Tempo, for example, is an entirely individual matter, each player working in his own space and shifting frequently. The music is at once extremely elastic, yet moving nowhere (or only very subtly somewhere).
Braxton’s and Smith’s work contrasts in several respects. Smith strays further from conventional pitch than does Braxton, and he uses space more as a conscious element of improvisational style. His is a sparer, more determinedly rhythmic approach. Braxton, on the other hand – and in his own circuitous way – seems to want to play everything he can think of to play, and he has become such an incredibly virtuostic player that he very nearly manages to do it. His span of ideas, through all ranges of his instruments, and his ability to express them, through whatever intervals and at whatever tempo, are more than might be expected from any one player. The word “instruments” should be emphasized, because Braxton plays them all equally well. He may play somewhat longer solos on one or the other, or he may shift them about quickly, playing only a phrase or two before going on. Smith works similarly through his several brass instruments (open, or muted in various ways), occasionally juxtaposing them with phrases or longer statements on wood flutes, interjecting an older, earthier sound.
So much of the reason for the great depth of this music has also to do with Phillip Wilson, one of the finest percussionists now playing. He may work with a whisper or a sigh as well as an explosion. A highly sensual player, who may spontaneously erupt into a moan or a cry, he does not so much play rhythm as he caresses it, strokes it, building an almost unendurable tension. He creates space for the other sounds, freeing them to create their own space.
Bassist Dave Holland did not make the trip here, but resident bassist James Leary, who has played with quite a number of folks (including Earl Hines), filled in admirably, making real contributions to the music. He seemed to draw on all aspects of his experience in a way I had not heard him do before, creating an open-ended collage of musical possibilities with some particularly striking bowed work .
The music this band is playing is some of the most moving improvisational group music now to be heard. None of Braxton’s recent records indicate this current direction of his work (which actually draws fairly heavily on what was his “first” direction), and they barely hint at the kind of player Braxton himself has now become. Won’t somebody offer us a record or two (or three!) of this band in performance?
Henry Kuntz, 1976
Note: Baikida E.J. Carroll (on trumpet and flugelhorn) joined the band one evening for a performance of a composition by Leo Smith, adding greater density to the group’s sound and offering a more extroverted counterpoint to Smith’s work. Chris Amberger played bass on opening night.
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”. 
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.
Baikida Carroll biography:
His theater works include The Mighty Gents by Richard Wesley, Eugene Sheen by Malinke Elliot, Poem for a Revolutionary Night by Larry Neal, Coontown Bicentennial Memorial Service with Julius Hemphill, For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange, Miss Julie by August Strindberg, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, Legacies by Kermit Frasier and Shakespeare’s King Lear. He also scored Betsey Brown, a musical by Ntozake Shange and Emily Mann.
As a musician, he has performed and recorded with such artists as Dewey Redman, Oliver Nelson, Albert King, David Murray, Jay McShann, Amiri Baraka, Patti LaBelle, Little Milton, Michael Gregory, David Sancious, Charlie Haden, Roscoe Mitchell, Dr John and Anthony Braxton. He was a featured soloist on Julius Hemphill’s first two albums, Dogon AD and Coon Bid’ness, on Oliver Lake’s first album, NTU, on John Carter’s classic Castles of Ghana, on Muhal Richard Abrams’ 1983 Down Beat Record of the Year Blues Forever and on Jack DeJohnette’s acclaimed Inflation Blues. He has four previous recordings under his own name: Orange Fish Tears (Palm), The Spoken Word (Hat Art), Shadows and Reflections (Soul Note) and Door of the Cage (Soul Note).
In 1987, Baikida was stricken with Bell’s Palsy which left half of his embouchure permanently paralyzed. It took a year of hard work, patience, determination and dedication to regain a simple single tone and another two years to re-train and regain his technique.
Baikida has been noted for his big warm dark tone and his conversational approach to improvising. He has the technique, versatility and extreme sensitivity to command the most challenging improvisational demands. Baikida scored a documentary for WNET (New York) Jewels in the Test Tube. He is a composer for the highly acclaimed 1995 hit Broadway show Having Our Say by Emily Mann.
His newest CD, Marionettes on a High Wire (OmniTone), is the much-anticipated and long-overdue follow-up to his highly acclaimed Door of the Cage (Soul Note), music that’s fresh, intelligent and dynamic, tight yet open. It swings, sings, probes, and has more of the engaging group interplay Baikida Carroll the musician and composer inspires.