excerpt from The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958
by John Litweiler

Anthony Braxton... was born in 1945 in Chicago, and as early as 1966, while he was stationed in an army band in Korea, he acquired a personal voice through his perceptive adaptation of later Coltrane to the alto saxophone.  He returned to Chicago at the end of that year and discovered an AACM jazz scene where sonic and structural exploration, unaccompanied horn solos, and the abandonment of ensemble rolesórhythm sectionless ensembles, for instanceówere commonplace.  His progress was swift.  He began playing other woodwinds besides the alto, moved from playing in tempos to an approximation of Roscoe Mitchell's ensemble methods, wrote totally composed scores, and played a solo alto composition by Henry Threadgill in a concert, all this in little more than a year.  He consciously sought to shed his devotion to Coltrane; in 1968 he arrived at the Free improvisation idiom of Three Compositions, and he also began recording the solos of For Alto. For all these thrusts in promising directions, Braxton was not satisfied:

When I was in Chicago, we were working with certain principles; it wasn't fashionable to function in certain areas of music. In the AACM, the basic emphasis was on improvisatory structure, and because of the intensity of certain discoveries, I focused on these aspects. The rate of new information was so dynamic, I was learning so much from Roscoe and Joseph [Jarman], that I was trying to find my own space, lest I become completely gobbled up by the enormity of what they were developing, I didn't want to simply copy them, but rather, I wanted to develop a viewpoint which would hopefully be as meaningful.

The first demonstration of his depth and range is For Alto.  The continuity in his unaccompanied solos derives from this strictly controlling syntax of each.  Thus the dedication to John Cage is in furiously burning energy lines; "Murray De Pillars" is in trills and longer note values; "Ann and Peter Allen" is slow and played subtone; "Kenny McKenny" is in distorted, nonconsecutive tones.  His kinship with Jarman, even without Jarman's technique, is evident in the dedications to Leroy Jenkins and De Pillars, and in the dramatic dynamic contrasts of the latter the characteristic Braxton vibrato first appears, with ripe, juicy notes that bend in the middle.  His form is free association, and one of his main lines of growth is the increasing quality and variety of stuff that he came to associate freely over the years.  His series of "104o Kelvin" solos is in a repetition/evolution style that certainly suggests composer Philip Glass\the first of them (1971) is dedicated to Glassóbut Braxton's ideas are intrinsically so much more vigorous than Glass's.  The long [Comp. 26B] (1971), dedicated to Maurice McIntyre, is an important step because it's an extravaganza of Braxton's sound distortion and alteration methods, sustained by a high tension that admits free space and all kinds of quick velocity and dynamic shifts.  By his wonderful 1979 solos he could even look back with some humor at his early art:  [Comp. 77D] passes through multiple stages of anger, from outrage to sarcasm to fury, by way of subtones, growls, and squalls that mock his early subservience to Coltrane.

At least in the sixties, his adventures in small groups lagged behind his progress in solo organization and invention.  There were two early free-improvisation efforts, Three Compositions and Anthony Braxton, both with Leo Smith and violinist Leroy Jenkins, who went to Europe with him in 1969.  In Paris he met a rhythm section, Chick Corea, David Holland, and Barry Altschul, that followed him closely, stimulated him ingeniously, and loved rhythmic risks; the four of them became Circle, and they stayed together for a year.  In fact, the lyrical yet driving bassist Holland stayed with Braxton for at least seven years, and Altschul, whose most vital drumming extends the nervous, explosive energy of Tony Williams, played with them for most of that time.  It may have been the security of playing with Holland that enabled Braxton to make great strides forward with his clarinet and alto.  There's a twenty-seven-minute Moers Festival version of [Comp. 23B] that swings madly, Braxton's alto voractiously devouring the beat.  Holland's propulsion is terrific; Braxton plays ahead of the beat, and thus ahead of the bass, and this combined with his shifting of accents makes him sound airy and liberated, for all his furious energy.

To some extent Braxton's headlong attack is a legacy of his immersion in Coltrane, but in the month before this 1974 recording he played a solo that shows a newly emerging kinship.  That solo is in "Marshmallow," a bubbling abstraction in displaced accents by tenorist Warne Marsh, and Braxton's subtly disorienting lines suggest Marsh's own playing as reinterpreted by Eric Dolphy angularities.  A Lennie Tristano disciple in the late forties, Marsh is the purest of romantics, always with an eager prebeat attack and wildly spontaneous accenting.  The raised eyebrow of Marsh peeps over such Braxton alto solos as [Comp. 23G] (1975), with long lines turning savage over the brutal stop time, and the internal disputes of [Comp. 23J], with un-Marsh-like cycles of fiercely entangled, exasperated honking.  The nasty passages of this and so many other Braxton solos are not just a post-Coltrane convention.  His "Embraceable You" is a free-association fantasy that's a bitter, sarcastic commentary on the standard theme, arhythmic, strongly stated, often harshly intoned; here's evidence of a cruel streak that's more than artifice.  One way he increased in power in the seventies was the degree to which he measured his episodes of squalling and sound distortion, frustration and anger.

Most of his major work is on alto sax, but almost from the beginning he joined the other Chicago saxmen in doubling on many woodwinds.  More than Jarman, Mitchell, or Kalaparush, it is Braxton who reattracted popular attention to the expressive versatility of the clarinet; his solo in [Comp. 40K] is a fine example, flashing wildly with sounds and contrasts.  He plays soprano and sopranino saxes at least as often; the continuously mobile textures of [Comp. 22] are his four overdubbed sopraninos.  The Charlie Parker themes he plays on contrabass clarinet sound like mastodons attempting to jitterbug; the instrument's range is so low that notes tend to emerge as monotones.  His most engaging quality is his nervous vitality, which he brings to all his instruments.  He's absorbed all kinds of modern musical ideas from everywhere imaginable, from bop and Free jazz to postwar classical composers to sixties rhythm and blues.  All this results from a romantic attitude that keeps finding new worlds to explore as well as familiar forms to revisit and refreshen.

Surely Braxton has played with the most varied collection of musicians this side of Don Cherry.  Among the other horns in his straight-ahead combos have been trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and the joyful Hugh Ragin and the exuberant trombones of George Lewis and the flamboyant Ray Anderson.  He's brought his outside art to bop era contexts with his In the Tradition LPs and with people like Dave Brubeck.  His totally improvised duets with Max Roach are straight-ahead works, whereas in his chamber jazz works, no players assume a rhythm section function: trios with Richard Teitelbaum's synthesizers and either Anderson or Leo Smith; duets with Muhal Richard Abrams' piano, with Derek Bailey's sensitive guitar, investigative duets with Roscoe Mitchell, ponderous, overdubbed duets with Joseph Jarman, passionate duets on standards with David Holland.  Some of this prodigious activity is extremely valuable and some is not.  What's consistent is his quality of enthusiasm, with his combination of sophistication and innocence, and, at best, a swift, sardonically inclined wit.

There is his composing.  He wrote rather Ornette Coleman-like themes for his Chicago combos, but his natural tendency to eschew simplicity led to this kind of material's being elongated and complicated.  Eventually it led to marvelous multipart themes such as [Comp. 23B], the themes in his Montreux/Berlin album, the meandering, diminished, paranoid theme of [Comp. 23G].  He also began presenting fully composed piece, but only after some real struggles: "I have 10, 11 or 12 early compositions that were completed by the end of 1967.  But in that time zone it was very difficult to get performances of totally notated compositions.  What I would do was save up money and pay musicians to rehearse some of my music, so I could hear it; I did the same in Paris.  My biggest problem as a composer was that I never got to hear nine tenths of the music I was writing."  Two of his long compositions advance his improvising combos' methods.  In For Trio (1977) and Composition 98 (1981) he begins to discover the unity in independence that was missing from his sixties free-improvisation recordings.  No features of these are sustained for very long; the players in these abstract works are given alternative abstractions to play if they wish, and occasionally improvisation appears as what Braxton calls "creative-sound-bursts"; the players are constantly moving from instrument to instrument.  Composition 98 sounds, on record, more texturally consistent than its predecessor, I suspect mainly because the players are Braxton's touring quartet (Ragin, Anderson, pianist Marilyn Crispell), who, through extensive experience in the music, invest it with spirit and continuity.

For Two Pianos is completely different.  The pianists double on melodicas and percussion briefly, but otherwise there is no instrument switching.  This is not a succession of colors, fragments, little forays; instead, the composition flows in long lines.  There's one passage of hard-struck, four-handed chords that die away in space; otherwise the harmonic textures are uniquely spare, and all the energy is linear.  It is so effective because its lyricism is unalloyed; on the record, the pianists let Braxton's music sing for itself.  Of his large orchestra pieces, only the largest, For Four Orchestras, has been recorded.  Here are abstractly associated sounds, textures, lines bouncing back and forth among four symphonies (160 musicians in all) for two hours\not the content but the form (alternating movement in fragments and in long note values) determine the length.

The sprawl of For Four Orchestras, its post-Webern idiom, and the textures and densities of its symphony instrumentation make it formidable.  And monumentality is what Braxton intended.  For Four Orchestras is the only completed work thus far in a series that will include pieces for 6, 8, 10 orchestras each in a different city, linked by satellite, then 100 orchestras.  Thereafter Braxton hopes that humanity's outer space travel will be advanced enough to accommodate his compositions' linking orchestras on several planets, several solar systems (by 1995!) and then several galaxies.  And why not?  If the human race survives the next millennium, Anthony Braxton would be a great choice to provide the music for the celebration.

Just imagine the celebrants on all the planets in all the galaxies cheering to an all-American parade march like Braxton's [Comp. 58], infiltrated by Free soloists: Leo Smith's smudges of trumpet sound, George Lewis's antic trombone, and then Braxton's agitated clarinet over band textures that grow progressively more separate and dissonant. These big jazz band pieces by Braxton are his major compositions to date, the best proof of his ingenuity with sound colors and forms. Some pieces recall Sun Ra\mid-fifties Ra in the post-hard bop, augmented lines of [Comp. 55]; later Ra in the slow, weighty, melancholy line before the bass sax duet of [Comp. 57]. This and [Comp. 56] are without main lines of discourse or dramatic organization, in the medium of joined disparities of For Trio. Creative Orchestra Music 1976 closes with the desolate prophecy of [Comp. 59]: Broken sounds lead to Roscoe Mitchell's splintered, sputtered alto tones; grim disconnected chords lead to Braxton's ascerbic, ugly chattering on sopranino; the piece dissolves in eternal hopelessness. Braxton certainly knows the odds against intergalactic celebration; in [Comp. 59] he provides the opposite, a terrible threnody for humanity's funeral.

The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (Da Capo Press, 1984), pp. 271-278.
Republished with the permission of John Litweiler; copyright remains with author.

also available as