I would like to propose now, at the beginning of this discussion, that we set aside entirely the question of the ultimate worth of Anthony Braxton's music. There are those who insist that Braxton is the new Bird, Coltrane, and Ornette, the three-in-one who is singlehandedly taking the Next Step in jazz. There are others who remain unconvinced. History will decide, and while it is doing so, we can and should appreciate Braxton's music for its own immediate value, as a particularly contemporary variety of artistic expression.
However, before we can sit down, take off our shoes, and place the enclosed record on our turntables, certain issues must be dealt with. People keep asking questions about Anthony Braxton, questions such as what does he think he is doing? Since these questions involve judgments we can make now, without waiting for history, we should answer them, and what better way to do so than to go directly to the man who is making the music? "Am I an improviser or a composer?" Braxton asks rhetorically, echoing more than one critical analysis of his work. "I see myself as a creative person. And the considerations determining what's really happening in the arena of improvised music imply an understanding of composition anyway. So I would say that composition and improvisation are much more closely related than is generally understood."
This is exactly the sort of statement Braxton's detractors love to pounce on. Not only has the man been known to wear cardigan sweaters, smoke a pipe, and play chess; he is an interested in composing as in improvising. If pressed, he will actually admit, "Yes, I am involved in notated music." But, the detractors protest, black saxophonists from the South Side of Chicago are supposed to wear tattered overcoats, smoke cigarettes or controlled substances, and play poker, not chess. They are supposed to value improvising above all else and to consider people who compose anything more complicated than blowing lines to be rather like armchair admirals. One detractor has gone so far as to suggest in print that Braxton "lacks authenticity as a jazzman."
Perhaps the recollections of a young reedman will shed some light on Braxton's "authenticity." One evening during the summer of 1970 the reedman was invited to a session in a Manhattan loft and arrived expecting to find the usual five drummers and eight saxophonists creating the usual deafening din. But Braxton has been there for awhile and had suggested that perhaps a little bebop would be more fun. Only Dave Liebman and Anthony and a rhythm section remained, and they were romping through the Thelonious Monk songbook at absolutely maniacal tempos. They then polished off a few Charlie Parker lines, and everybody but Anthony retired. He noticed that the young reedman was still hanging around with his horn and sat down at the drums, which he played in swinging fashion for half an hour while the reedman soloed to his heart's content.
If further evidence of Braxton's "authenticity as a jazzman" is needed, the Braxton/David Holland duet version of "You Stepped Out of a Dream" which begins this album should suffice. "We decided to play it," says Braxton, "because it's a song I like very much. I like the chord changes. Some of the notes we play most certainly go outside of those chords, but we used the form anyway. Why? Because Dave and I play duet a lot, and we both like to play standards. And because we respect the total time progression of the music." Further Braxton versions of standards are to be found on his Trio and Duet (Sackville 3007) and In the Tradition (Steeplechase SCS-1015). In the liner notes to the latter lp, Braxton wrote, "the repertoire in creative improvised music is so vast\so much good music that can be done in so many different ways\that it is always a problem deciding what to play (not to mention there's so much of it I still have to learn).... I find it necessary to continue to research the whole (time-zone) of improvised music in all its structural progressions."
There it is again: "structural," that baneful, compositional word. Braxton takes it seriously. He actually listens to Cage, Feldman, Xenakis, and other composers in the European and (white) American avant-garde as well as to jazz and other forms of music. As a matter of fact, he says, "I listen to whatever I can get my hands on that I find interesting. And when the truth becomes fully known about what we call classical music today, and its relationship to the period of Moorish influence in Spain and what this implied in terms of the function of notation, then I feel the relationship of notation to black creativity will be much clearer." And don't musicologists agree that the music of the ancient Greeks, the beginning-music of European civilization, was more or less identical to the classical music of India, and that black African music was influential in Europe at various times in its history? "Yes, there are too many interconnections for me not to be aware of all these different forms and structures."
In his own compositions, Braxton is rarely content to take structure for granted. Thus, in the present recording, he studiously avoids the head-solos in sequence-head format his traditional quartet instrumentation suggests. Composition 2, side one [Comp. 23H], consists of an involving multi-part theme, a resourceful, coloristic percussion improvisation by Barry Altschul, and a brief reprise of the theme's basic germ. Composition one, side two [Comp. 23E], begins and ends with identical themes, but the central portion is given over to a collective improvisation of constantly changing density, instrumentation, and direction, with Braxton playing sopranino saxophone flute, Bb clarinet, and contrabass clarinet at various junctures. The album's concluding composition [Comp. 40M] begins with an alto saxophone solo over a bass ostinato, which only gradually develops into a theme and thence into a collective improvisation.
It must be said, and Braxton would be the first to do so, that the responsibility for bringing these schematics to life rests on the improvising of the musicians. In this case, the players' sensitivity to the composer's wishes and their versatility are equally important. Kenny Wheeler, who lives in London and flies into New York when Braxton records or plays important dates, is both a leading trumpeter on the English free jazz scene and a much-in-demand studio musician. Bassist David Holland is a fascinating composer in his own right, as his ECM album Conference of the Birds (featuring Braxton) demonstrates. Barry Altschul has become an artist who expresses feelings in silence as well as in sound, who has taken the use of percussive texture and shading past new thresholds of awareness. And Braxton the soloist burns throughout the album, as authentically as anyone could wish. His alto solos are especially noteworthy; the growling fire he injects into the concluding compositions on sides one and two are evidence that he plays with his body and heart as well as with his mind.
The music is original, thoughtfully conceived, brilliantly executed, and not at all difficult. In fact, compared to a number of works of so-called experimental jazz it is downright old-fashioned. It makes use of some of the more recent developments in notated music, but within an improvisational context. Do the mathematical diagrams which constitute the compositions' titles make the music seem forbidding? "The diagrams," Braxton says, "have to do with the implications of what structural approach was taken, and also with vibrational flows." In other words, they are abstracts of the compositions' content and feeling; they are compositional schematics. By this he means that a composition is a kind of diagram suggesting the kinds of (improvised) things that can happen within it. He also emphasizes that these are not merely compositions, but compositions for particular players, in this case the exceptionally gifted members of the quartet. "Composition for the contemporary improviser," he adds, "has to do, first with determining a particular type of flow and, second, with defining the actual languages involved.
The key to understanding this music, then, is to simply sit down and listen to it. All of the voices within it speak clearly and distinctly, and the compositions channel them in well-defined directions. And anyway, says Braxton, "I don't like the idea that I'm advanced or that some musicians are more advanced than others. How can you be advanced on this planet when here you are just playing music as it comes up, learning about it, and trying to grow as a person? The music is a natural outgrowth of all that."
Robert Palmer, August, 1975
Robert Palmer writes about music for the Sunday New York Times and is a Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone and Downbeat.