Anthony Braxton,
News from the '70s
(Newtone, 2003)

Anthony Braxton is an enormously versatile and talented avant-garde musician and composer. He plays various saxes on most of his recordings, but knows half a dozen other instruments as well. His compositions run the gamut from solo jazz to huge works for orchestra. "For Four Orchestras" is longer than most symphonies and requires over 100 musicians.

Braxton has a successful academic career. He has been a professor and chairman of the music department at Wesleyan University. In 1994 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. This particular "genius" grant, as the MacArthur has become known, amounted to $300,000 for outstanding and original contributions to his field.

Though Braxton has released many recordings, he is probably better known by reputation than actual listening experience because much of his music is experimental or otherwise difficult. He often plays in a free-jazz style with unconventional melodies and harmonies. This release contains performances captured in his private collection of recordings made at concerts in Europe during the 1970s. The sound is generally less than studio quality, but good enough not to get in the way of the music.

The first track, "Composition 23E," is played by a quartet of Braxton, an unbelievably good Dave Holland on bass, Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn and Barry Altschul on a busy and aggressive set of drums. The piece is a mini-suite with a variety of moods and tempos. To give those unfamiliar with Braxton an idea, it's a little further out than what Ornette Coleman was doing around the same period. Braxton has most of the spotlight. On soprano he shows terrific technique in up-tempo swirls reminiscent of late Coltrane. After fine solos by the others, he returns on clarinet and the music becomes more abstract with passages of collective improvisation before a clever, quiet ending.

"Composition 8C" is a ballad-like piece for alto sax alone. It is a beautiful example of Braxton at his most accessible. On this track he has a solid, full tone and is using more familiar harmonic progressions. The piece reminded me of my reaction to early Picasso. It was nice to confirm he really could draw! It made me more confident there was a logic to his abstract pieces that just took longer to see.

And the next track, with its extended tonality, indeed returns to the more abstract. It's a duet between Braxton on clarinet and Holland on bass. It is influenced by Braxton's training in classical composition and wouldn't be much out of place in a concert of modern classical chamber music. Dave Holland has become one of jazz's most successful players in recent years, fronting a variety of groups including a fine big band. Most musicians seem either to get stuck in the style they grew up with or evolve to more esoteric sounds. Holland has instead traveled away from the avant-garde into more popular sounds. He is a great bass player in any style.

The three remaining performances on News From The '70s stay at the abstract end of the spectrum. On "Composition -1" Braxton appears with another quartet, substituting atonal composer Antoine Duhamel's piano for percussion. "Composition -2" is another piece for sax alone, this time a tenor on which Braxton displays his honk and squeal side. The final cut returns again to quartet format with George Lewis on trombone replacing Kenny Wheeler.

Anyone interested in avant-garde jazz should have some familiarity with Anthony Braxton and this CD provides a wonderful cross-section of his early work. The playing throughout is intelligent and passionate. Recommended for the adventurous.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 17 April 2004

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