Big box o' Braxton
[From Jazziz, December 2008.]
If you had one copy of every album Anthony Braxton has released or been a guest on in his long career, you'd need a 40-foot shipping container to hold them. Between 1974 and 1980 alone, Arista Records funded nine albums (including several doubles and one triple vinyl epic) and licensed two others from the European label Freedom. Although the latter titles aren't included in The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, a new collection from Mosaic, you'll find more than enough to sift through and digest.
Initially, Braxton recorded somewhat straight small-group sessions, lulling his corporate paymasters into a false sense of security. Then, after achieving tenure, he embarked on less commercially palatable projects like Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1989 and the aforementioned triple album, For Four Orchestras. (Braxton's album titles remain stubbornly self-explanatory.)
His debut for the label, New York, Fall 1974, is nothing that listeners accustomed to the rhythmic and melodic twists and turns of Ornette Coleman's 1959-1960 recordings couldn't immediately embrace. Only the presence of a squelching, zapping synthesizer on "Opus 38A" hints at fusion or hardcore avant-garde. Everything else is free but swinging, with ribbon-like unison passages that captivate the ear. Five Pieces (1975) makes for an admirable sequel, even including a standard ("You Stepped Out of a Dream," performed as a lovely saxophone/bass duo). And the double live album The Montreux/Berlin Concerts offers a superb mix of the audience-friendly and more outré Braxton.
Even some of the edgier releases never devolve into ultra-abstruse exercises in beard stroking. Creative Orchestra Music 1976 lives up to its title, moving from hard-swinging big band charts to squiggly, arid experimentalism and even into the realm of John Philip Sousa (on the giddy "Opus 58"). For Trio is less rooted in traditional jazz, but won't seem at all foreign or forbidding to fans of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The album contains two versions of the same piece by different trios, one of which features the AEC's Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell alongside Braxton, each man playing "little instruments" in addition to the expected variety of woodwinds.
Comprising eight CDs, this beautifully remastered box is but a shaving from an iceberg. While it's nowhere near a complete portrait of Braxton, it's a marvelous collection worthy of in-depth listening at length and at leisure.