ANTHONY BRAXTON

News from the 70s
Felmay/Newtone FY 7005

With his MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and his tenured position at Wesleyan University now part of his storied past, it would seem that Anthony Braxton has attained the respect he deserves as an academic and a serious American composer. However, a document like this CD — or “text” as the academics would term it — serves as a reminder of how he achieved what he did.

Organized by Italian jazz writer Francesco Martinelli and consisting of almost 75 minutes of tapes from Braxton’s private tape stash, the newest track dates from 1976 and the oldest from 1971. Braxton’s improvising and band leading is emphasized as much as his composing here, and hearing him in contexts ranging from solo to quartet you quickly pick up on the skill, technique and intensity that drew people to him in the first place. Hitherto-unknown compositions and new versions of older compositions are exposed, as are unique or under-recorded partnerships.

Case in point is “Composition-2”, which features Braxton on sopranino, clarinet, piccolo and alto saxophone, flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler and two French musicians better known for their New music leanings and film scores than for improvisations. Yet it was performances like this with pianist Antonine Duhamel and bassist François Mechali which helped make Braxton’s name in France. And it’s easy to see why.

Even without a percussionist, the four are able to formulate a lively theme stretched over a walking bass line and sharp piano overtones that almost sound like vibes. When he briefly gets the solo spotlight, in fact, Duhamel displays a tone that could easily have come from a player piano. Canadian-born, British-domiciled Wheeler, who since then has reverted to his persona as the cautious, colorist of shades of gray, which first got him noticed in mid-1960 Britain, surprises as well. When he’s not working in duple counterpoint with the reedman, he offers up some high-pitched Don Cherry-like note substitutions and explorations.

For his part Braxton, who jumps back-and-forth from one horn to another, takes solos that seem to be one-third Charlie Parker, one-third Eric Dolphy and one-third New Thing madman. It’s hard to link that energy to the comfortable, bespectacled pedagogue he now chooses to portray.

There’s no mistaking that a percussionist is on hand for “Composition 23E” and “Four Winds”, however, with New Yorker Barry Altschul behind the traps. A freebopper par excellence, he hits everything he can — including what sound like bells and triangles — when he gets a chance. Showiness and overwhelming aren’t part of his vocabulary, however. As a mater of fact adding his timekeeping on the cymbals plus the occasional press roll to Dave Holland’s low toned, steady bass lines throughout and you’d think you were listening to a bunch of beboppers.

Well, at least until you got to the front line. On the first tune Wheeler strains notes into the stratosphere, while on the second, trombonist George Lewis adds a brassy fillip to the proceedings when he’s not modulating in unison with Braxton. Lightly inflected, Braxton’s sopranino playing sounds very much of the 1970s here as well, with modulations that suggest Wayne Shorter or Dave Liebman more than John Coltrane.

Holland also exhibits his cello prowess on “Composition-1”, a track left off the recording of the reedist’s epochal 1972 concert at New York’s Town Hall. In a more than 14-minute duet with Braxton, who takes the black stick from a warm, low tone to squeaky upper register vibrations, Holland holds his own, both with bow and fingers. At times he produces sonorous passages of almost meltingly legitimate tones.

Completed by two examples of Braxton’s solo alto saxophone work, this CD, despite its definitely non-archival sound, is both musically and historically fascinating. Braxton apparently has more unreleased tapes. Perhaps it’s time for a second volume.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Composition 23E*#+ 2. Composition 8C 3. Composition -1# 4. Composition -2% 5. Composition 8G 6. Four Winds^#+

Personnel: Kenny Wheeler (flugelhorn)*; George Lewis (trombone)^; Anthony Braxton (sopranino, clarinet, piccolo, alto saxophone); Antonine Duhamel (piano)%; François Mechali%, Dave Holland# (bass); Barry Altschul (percussion)+