August 24, 2000
Thirty-one years later it's hard to fathom the reception this landmark album received and Braxton's audacity in putting it out. Remember it was a time when not only New Thingers, but mainstreamers were struggling for work, jazz rock was ossifying into fusion and the only hope seemed to be coming from intricate compositions and orchestrations of writers like Muhal Richard Abrams.
Yet here was Braxton, all of 24 years old and with only one other LP under his belt, putting out what was a 2-LP set of the sort of solo improvisations only allowed pianists at that time.
Economics and experimentation means that seemingly every saxophonist short of Bill Clinton now records a solo CD, or at least a solo track. But in 1969, Coleman Hawkins' "Picasso" of 20 years before was the only widely acknowledged success. Singular to a fault, Braxton stood the jazz establishment on its ear here, adding a set of dedications and graphic titles to his audacious statement.
So how does the music stand up? Very well, thank you, though it's interesting to note that the then rail-thin Braxton was a long way from becoming the avuncular semi-classicist he is now.
What strikes you right off is the acerbity of some of the compositions and how in your face Braxton was then. On "John Cage" and "Leroy Jenkins, for example, he seems to be struggling to fit everything in as he balances harsh, stratospheric tones, banshee-like wails and cavernous horn blats to make his points. This isn't smooth, or even polite jazz, but a record of a man using every ounce of his being to explore each part of his saxophone — and damn the consequences. "Kenny McKenny", with its altissimo squeaks and tugboat blats and growls is even more brutal, but its beauty must rest in the ear of the listener.
Not everything is that frenetic, however. The Chicago school's use of silence had influenced him, as on "Ann and Peter Allen", where the tiny, mournful notes fade into mere breaths. The quiet allows you to hear air circulating through the horn and the key pads opening and closing. There are even flute-like sections on "Murray De Pillars" where overblowing allows him to sound like he's duetting with himself.
In retrospect probably the most interesting tracks is "Cecil Taylor", which could be an "outside" twin to a Gene Ammons funky jazz solo. Despite his universal leanings Braxton never lost touch with the South Side blues and this proves it.
FOR ALTO isn't easy listening, candlelight-and-wine background music — and jazz smoothies should stay away. But if you're interested in the beginnings of one of music's most fascinating minds, deep listening will give you insights.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Dedicated to multi-instrumentalist Jack Gell 2. To Composer John Cage 3. To artist Murray De Pillars 4. To pianist Cecil Taylor 5. Dedicated to Ann and Peter Allen 6. Dedicated to Susan Axelrod 7. To my friend Kenny McKenny 8. . Dedicated to multi-instrumentalist Leroy Jenkins
Personnel: Anthony Braxton (alto saxophone)