Multi-instrumentalist, composer, chess grandmaster and occasional author Anthony Braxton once drew as much criticism and ridicule as Wynton Marsalis. Despite being a champion of experimental material in both the improvising and classical traditions, Braxton has been blistered for every sin, from having a cold, soulless style to being overly infatuated with Stockhausen and Dave Brubeck. When Braxton's pioneering, and recently reissued, solo-sax session For Alto was issued in 1968, the results were labeled either revolutionary or disgraceful depending on the perspective. Almost 33 years and multiple albums later, Braxton has been proved neither fraud nor seer. He was and is a fine player, especially on the cumbersome twins-bass and contrabass clarinets-and his compositions have become less pretentious and more engaging.
Quintet (Basel) 1977 features Braxton with the best cast among the discs. Trombonist George Lewis' floating, often humorous recants to Braxton's leaps and darts on alto sax, sopranino and clarinet, as well as Muhal Richard Abrams' masterful accompaniment and measured yet bluesy playing, make the four lengthy numbers engrossing. The highlight is the almost 27-minute "Composition 69 N/G," which gets bolstered by edgy bass work from Mark Helias and reliable percussive tapestry provided by Charles "Bobo" Shaw. Shaw's spirited drumming brings some funk and fire to the date, while Abrams imbues it with dignity and Lewis gives it spunk. Braxton's shrieks and moans on alto can become wearing when he endlessly repeats figures and phrases. The alto may be the instrument Braxton's most identified with but it remains his weakest, For Alto notwithstanding. His tone frequently sounds thin and shrill, and the ideas just don't flow as quickly or decisively as they do on any other instrument he plays.