anthony braxton | part two


PERFORMANCE OF MARCH 1, 1975, Zellerbach Auditorium, University of California, Berkeley.

Piece 1: Anthony Braxton / reeds, Leo Smith / brass, Richard Teitelbaum / synthesizer. Piece 2: Anthony Braxton / contra-bass clarinet, Roscoe Mitchell / bass sax. Piece 3: Piece for Ten Instruments: brass and reeds, Braxton conducting. Part 4 (3 Pieces): Anthony Braxton / reeds, flute, Kenny Wheeler / trumpet, Barry Altschul: percussion, Glenn Howell / bass.

PERFORMANCE OF MARCH 10, 1975, Student Union Ballroom, San Jose State University, San Jose.

Anthony Braxton / alto saxophone.

Anthony Braxton is seeking to bridge musical gaps. He feels that improvised and composed music, as two distinct musical approaches, have been separated long enough; and he sees musicians all over the planet no longer making that distinction, but simply presenting creative music. In describing his own approach, he says: “I’m not really interested in ‘free’ music. What I attempt to do is to create situations for improvisers.” In Braxton’s music, then, there is both form and spontaneity; but his concern with form is probably of greater interest to him than it has been traditionally to other improvisational artists. It is this element, it seems, that makes Braxton’s music so attractive to some and that similarly causes others (who feel his formal emphasis is excessive) to turn away.

In the earlier concert, Braxton’s compositional concerns were apparent from the outset. The opening piece, with Smith on brass and Teitelbaum on synthesizer, featured (according to Anthony) three pre-determined episodes that were arranged so as to set up and bracket improvisational sequences. There was a certain similarity here, it seemed, to Braxton’s earliest work, but with a smoother flow and nicely overlaid electronic elements: perhaps the single most important work of the evening. The piece with Mitchell seemed to sway back and forth with a low rumble, the improvisational focus (blurted honks and growls) shifting from player to player: a very short piece, extremely self-contained. The piece for ten instruments featured no improvisation, at least none that was discernible, and compositionally didn’t seem too far removed from other works of its kind. Braxton’s interest seemed to be in exploring various combinations of timbres, ranges of sound, and dynamic emphases: very similar to what are his “usual” musical interests. But, perhaps due to its performers’ unfamiliarity with the piece, it was somewhat lacking in dramatic tension.

The quartet portion of the program (three connected pieces) most closely resembled what jazz has been in the sense that the pieces were built on thematic material and featured solos from each player. Braxton’s themes were fairly concise compositional statements meant to pervade the whole of each piece. But as compositions they appeared to owe much less to Monk or to Parker than to the school of music given impetus by Lennie Tristano. Altschul stood out in this part of the program which also included a fine alto solo from Braxton. The problem with this concert was that each of the pieces, while interesting to a greater or lesser extent, seemed to be leading toward some final climactic statement which, however, did not actually come. This feeling seemed to hang over the hall at the music’s conclusion.

Nine days later, the solo concert – scarcely advertised, barely a hundred people in attendance – provided a stunning encore. Again, Braxton’s concern with form was highly evident. But here Anthony seemed less a composer as such than a fine craftsman, a shaper and molder of sound. His command of the alto is astounding; his technique, through all ranges, embouchures, colorings, is flawless. In all, ten pieces of music were presented, none much longer than five to seven minutes. Within each, Braxton seemed to set himself maximum challenges. He worked through all registers of the saxophone, through various shadings, rhythms and dynamic levels, juggling and juxtaposing opposites, frequently within the most difficult musical constructs. Braxton is breaking new ground with the solo format and, with each statement he makes, he sets new standards for those who would (at some point) follow in his steps. Right now, he’s miles ahead of everyone; and, notably, it is his very conscious sense of form (with its technique-al implications) that has placed him in this position.


The Zellerbach Auditorium

Anthony Braxton is a new type of musician, one who feels comfortable working on many different levels simultaneously. (The solo alto concert was only one of four concerts that Anthony did at San Jose State as part of a two week artist-in-residence series. Others, which I was unable to attend, included a concert with himself, Roscoe Mitchell, Richard Teitelbaum, and another synthesizer player, Allan Strange; one with Frederick Rzewski performing his piano works; and one with San Jose State students performing other of his compositions.) While it may not be possible for everyone to like everything that Anthony Braxton does, it is obvious from these performances that he is consistently challenging himself to be original and creative.

Henry Kuntz, 1975


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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