In the 1970s, the Arista imprint released a run of great LPs, some of them ground-breaking, that the label made so widely available that you could scarcely visit a record store without seeing them. More than two decades out of print, they're still relatively easy to obtain, which is an excellent thing since many of the best of them haven't made it to CD.
Anthony Braxton's enormous catalog from the 70s includes a pile of stunning Aristas, all of them produced by Michael Cuscuna under the executive production of Steve Backer. Good thing these guys were on the ball, or great pieces like cut three, side one of Creative Orchestra Music 1976—Braxton's outstanding, outlandish marching band piece which sounds like Sousa gone wonderfully awry—might never have been waxed. Records with fellow AACM alumni, like a duet with Muhal Richard Abrams and an LP with two trios (Braxton plus Henry Threadgill and Douglas Ewart on one side, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on the other) are significant entries in the Chicago newjazz legacy.
Cuscuna had the good sense to record some of Braxton's most challenging music, like a piece for two pianos performed by Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzewski, and Arista was open enough to sink some money it was sure to lose into documenting one of Braxton's multiple orchestra pieces, resulting in a three-LP set that's as important for its liner booklet as for the slightly shaky reading by a student orchestra at Oberlin. In the notes, the composer foresees producing a piece to be scored for different star systems (by 1995) and different galaxies (by 2000). For Braxton, the problem in mounting such projects is always material, never creative—give him the means, and I have no doubt that he'd have intergalactic symphonic music happening tout suite.
Braxton's music of more modest means is also highly ambitious. Check out, for instance, one of his finest records, among the signal vinyl releases of the 70s: New York, Fall 1974. The main part of the LP is given over to Braxton's exceptional working group with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jerome Cooper. With this ensemble, Braxton explored some of his most exciting jazz compositions, introducing pieces with unison sax/trumpet melodic lines that extend far beyond conventional song form—a further elongation of Lennie Tristano's drastic-elastic phraseology.
One molten cut with this group finds Braxton on contrabass clarinet; he loves the registral extreme, playing his super-low instrument against Wheeler's quicksilver muted trumpet and guest Leroy Jenkins' violin. Two tracks with Braxton on alto should be mandatory listening for Braxdetractors. The lead-off cut is an uptempo burner with an absolutely gorgeous saxophone solo, Holland locking in perfectly with Cooper under Braxton's excoriating climax.
Elsewhere, a piece for clarinet and the synthesizer of Richard Teitelbaum visits different textural vistas, as does an historic saxophone quartet, with Braxton and Julius Hemphill on altos, Oliver Lake on tenor and Hamiet Bluiett on baritone. Sound like a familiar lineup? It's the World Saxophone Quartet, pre-David Murray, assembled to perform a forward-looking composition structured around gently pulsing clusters and chords and dialogue-based improvisations.