Complete Anthony Braxton Arista Recordings
Eight CDs represents a big undertaking both for listeners and Mosaic, the label that wrote the book on boxed sets and started releasing them when they were vinyl-only. For Anthony Braxton, though, eight CDs is a mere drop in the bucket. But what a drop it is, compiling six fruitful years that yielded nine groundbreaking albums, none of which have been available in any form since their initial release.
Complete Arista Recordings also inadvertently pays tribute to a period of the music industry that will never be seen again. In 1974, Braxton was courted by two American record labels. The composer chose Clive Davis’ nascent Arista over Atlantic since he would be working with Steve Backer, the former head of Impulse, who understood the music, and Michael Cuscuna, now of Mosaic and other reissue projects. It was a wise choice, as they gave him carte blanche to record everything from his quartet to double-albums of solo saxophone and, in a move that must’ve sent the bean counters through the roof, a three-record composition involving four 39-piece orchestras. That kind of investment in an artist’s vision is long gone, at least as far as major labels are concerned.
The set retains the running order of the original albums, sequencing them by their original release dates. It frequently contrasts with the order of recording dates but it makes sense in terms of material.
While he may deserve a description like avant-garde, Braxton repeatedly opened his early albums with interpretations of jazz classics or spins on them, offering a bridge from tradition into his musical brain. Disc one opens with “Opus 23B,” an atonal reworking of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” The lack of a tonal center doesn’t make it any less accessible, and the Parker reference is easily overlooked in favor of the bullet-spray of notes delivered at a jaw dropping tempo that even causes both Braxton and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler to stumble a little as they play. It’s the perfect leadoff track, creating excitement for what will follow.
The quartet sessions with Wheeler (replaced later by trombonist George Lewis), bassist Dave Holland and drummers Jerome Cooper or Barry Altschul have a free-bop feel to them. But Braxton was just as likely to have bass and drums walk as he would have them play rigid, one-to-the-bar notes during a piece. Likewise, “Opus 37,” with three-quarters of what would become the World Saxophone Quartet, is built around an abrasive repetition of dissonant quarter notes.
Later sessions also cast gazes backward, such as when Braxton and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams cover Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann” and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” between contemporary art music pieces and contrabass sax/piano romps. On his own, Braxton attempts “Giant Steps,” Lionel Hampton’s “Red Top,” and Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty” in between sound explorations on his alto.
The Creative Orchestra Music 1976 album transfers Braxton’s approach successfully to a larger group, which at times sounds like a hybrid of Count Basie and Sun Ra (“Opus 51”) and, in one of the box’s most bizarre moments, starts like a John Philip Sousa march that quickly shifts into atonal frenzy. For Trio marks the beginning of the extended pieces. This album features Braxton in two 20-minute tracks with Douglas Ewart and Henry Threadgill on one; Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell on the other. The multi-instrumentalists blow reeds, bang percussion and vocalize in a way that makes sparseness as much a part of the music as the sound.
That openness in the music continues in the final large pieces of the box, although this element sometimes worked against it. For Two Pianos has Frederic Rzweski and Ursula Oppens performing Braxton’s work on the keyboard, with occasional melodica and zither sounds keeping the texture moving. For Four Orchestras is impressive in its size and length (nearly two hours), but it relies on quick bursts of music or aimless long notes that never develop beyond their exposition.
While this set might be an investment, anyone looking for a basic profile of Braxton’s music would be more than satiated with this set. Hearing it all together goes a long way toward profiling the various elements that factor into his compositions and provides a great appreciation for one of the country’s boldest composers. (Available by mail only from Mosaic Records, www.mosaicrecords.com)