liner notes to The Montreux/Berlin Concerts (Arista AL 5002)
by Michael Cuscuna

In 1970, the Chick Corea trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul became the co-operative quartet Circle with the addition of Anthony Braxton.  This unique and often brilliant quartet was so co-operative that it was inevitably doomed by the strong individualism and creativity of its members.  Just before its demise in 1971, Braxton recorded a double album for Freedom Records that featured duets with Chick and a quartet of Dave, Barry and Kenny Wheeler.

Circle crumbled, leaving behind a legacy of recorded works on CBS in Japan, ECM in Germany and Blue Note in the United States.  Ironically, it was the Braxton quartet with Kenny, Dave and Barry that lasted intermittently until 1976.

The first three pieces on this album capture that group riding the crest of its last year.  During that hot summer in Europe, Anthony was worried about the fate of the group.  There were practical problems such as Kenny living in London while the others lived in or around New York and the fact that Dave and Barry had overlapping commitments with Sam Rivers, Paul Bley and others.  More than that, Anthony felt that this was the time for a change.  After six years, he felt that this group had reached its peak as a vehicle for his music and as an integrated performing quartet.  The group disbanded soon after its triumphant Montreux appearance, although Anthony knew that he would be playing with these three men in the future.

It was indeed time for a change, but what?  During the latter part of 1975 and the early months of 1976, Anthony experimented with many outstanding musicians in his quartet, but nothing felt right for his music and nothing gave him the security and the inspiration that he sought.  It was during this period that he recorded the ambitious Creative Orchestra Music album.  This album was not only the realization of a dream for Braxton, but also an easy avoidance of developing a new permanent working ensemble.

In preparation for that recording, Anthony and I planned to fly in from Chicago a young trombonist named George Lewis.  We had never heard him play, but Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams had been boisterously singing his praises to both of us for quite some time.  His ensemble work and solo work lived up to our expectations.  After that recording session, we often speculated about his trombone replacing the trumpet chair in Anthony's group.

Through a series of events, Anthony opened at the Jazz Workshop in Boston in May of 1976 with George Lewis and the reunited rhythm team of Dave Holland and Barry Altschul.  And it was pure magic.  Anthony's compositions, new and old, were given a new dimension, and Anthony's playing reflected his satisfaction and excitement over this new-old group.  It was the culmination of a period of frustration and hesitation and dissatisfaction and the beginning of a new creative period for Anthony.

The quartet started priming itself for recording with a number of major appearances at major festivals such as Newport-New York and Willisau, Switzerland.  But it was at the first Dortmund Jazz Festival in Germany on October 31, 1976 that this group hit a magic peak.  We spent the rest of that evening exhilarated by the performance and depressed by the absence of a recording facility.

But four days later, during the second day of the Berliner Jazztage (Berlin Jazz Days), the group once again hit its stride.  The second piece on side two of this album [Comp. 6C] remains, for me, one of the pinnacles of collective jazz playing.  Ironically, this amazing composition was written by Anthony in 1967 and only recently resurrected.  Also included by this unit is a new version of Anthony's [Comp. 6F].

The Montreux performance includes the first documented version of [Comp. 40(O)] as well as a free flowing drone-based piece [Comp. 40N] and a tempo piece [Comp. 23J] that includes one of Braxton's most exciting alto solos to date.

Ironically, the fourth tune of each performance was eliminated from possible release by technical difficulties, and that missing piece in both concerts was the stop time composition that first appeared on "Five Compositions [sic], 1975" (Arista).

Side four features a chamber orchestra piece [Comp. 63] that had been recently composed by Braxton.  Unlike the several orchestra pieces that have been performed in the United States and Europe over the past couple of years, this piece allowed for two soloists in an improvisational role.  Of course, those two soloists are Anthony and George.

After a first rehearsal during which Braxton earned the confidence and respect of this extraordinary classical ensemble, things went very well.  And the performance on the fourth night of the Berlin Festival was received by the skeptical Berlin audience with a five or six minute ovation.

This album began during an incredible hot spell in Montreux, Switzerland during the summer of 1975 and culminated in a mix room in Woodstock, New York in February of 1977 during a severe cold spell.  During the nineteen months that bridged these climatic extremes, there were many frustrations, many changes, many possibilities, many satisfying moments and many miles travelled.  Throughout, we were never sure of what we had or of what we were working toward.

In retrospect, the end result is one of which we are proud.  It is a live documentation of a quartet that reached extraordinary heights during its six year life and of a quartet that has attained equal brilliance in its first year of existence.  And through the auspices of the Berlin Jazz Days, the album closes with a rare example of Braxton's written music at this point in time.  We can only hope that the experience translates to vinyl and to the listener.

Michael Cuscuna

These notes republished with the permission of Michael Cuscuna; all copyrights remain with the author.

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