Anthony Braxton – News from the 70’s

Anthony Braxton - News fom the 70'sAnthony Braxton
News from the 70’s
by J. Barrett

There was a trip to Wesleyan University, where Anthony Braxton teaches. In the basement, amid tricycles and other childhood debris, was the cardboard box full of tapes. Recorded by the performers from 1971-76 (one at Town Hall, the rest in Europe), they were filed away and forgotten – until now. Ranging from solo to quartet, we see Braxton with old partners (George Lewis, Dave Holland from Circle) and those sitting in (film composer Antoine Duhamel.) By turns soothing and screaming, this music defies category, and so does its composer. With a handful of tools he builds impressive horizons.

“Composition 23E” opens slowly, as Braxton and Kenny Wheeler mournfully trudge their lines over Barry Altschul’s shimmering drums. Holland bows, and the sound goes temporarily mono (audio quality varies, but is generally fine.) Braxton’s sopranino sounds very like an oboe as Holland starts sawing. The theme is stated as normal while Holland and Altschul go crazy. When the theme ends Wheeler solos, all high twitters and tiny little flutters. Braxton’s turn is very similar, with the sax sound like a clarinet. Holland goes ballistic, strumming the bass at one point. In the moment of Braxton’s greatest fury, he runs a highly organized line of connected progression – and at full speed. Highly impressive.

All goes quiet, the drums noodle a while, someone cranks a ratchet, and Braxton plays metronome on a pure clarinet. Wheeler echoes, Holland plays a relative of the Addams Family theme, Altschul rattles some bells – it’s a lovely moment. Holland picks up the bow and the horns trade lonely phrases; it sounds like modern classical music. Holland bows a solo; the sound of the tape machine is really noticeable, the horns honk a little, and the piece is over.

Two alto solos come from a 1971 concert in France; the notes guess the location and date. These are in mono: “8C” has a deep strong tone and wistful melancholy. Three minutes into it Braxton surges, goes high, and there’s a part where he twiddles his horn pads. “8G” is honks and squeaks, sound and fury. It’s obvious why John Zorn considers Braxton a big influence. The classical mood linked Braxton to the past; this one puts him in the future.

We hear Holland again on “Composition -1”, this time on cello. (The sound is bad here, with lots of annoying dropouts.) Braxton rings full on clarinet, Holland bows, plucks, and twangs his axe, sometimes all at once. When Holland gets active, Braxton takes off. Fast trills, high squawks, and outrageous honks – all in seconds. He takes great swoops like the clarinets on “Rite of Spring”; Holland tweaks and bows with acid tone. The bass plucks chords while Braxton darts, and the somber mood returns.

“Composition -2” is another quartet: Braxton, Wheeler, and a French rhythm section. The piano adds warmth; Braxton comes loud with an opening close to “All the Things You Are”. The theme is angular and old-fashioned, a little like Carl Stalling cartoon music. Braxton honks hard (the notes say it’s a sopranino but it sounds deeper) while pianist Duhamel muses bitterly. There next is a squeal of impossible power; Duhamel goes on as if nothing happened. The piano solo takes a while to get started, but displays some Cecil Taylor power.

Holland’s “Four Winds” is the only cover tune here. It’s the group from “23E”, with George Lewis replacing Wheeler. He opens with a rubbery solo that growls with the best of them and whoops up a storm. The Zappa-like theme resumes, and it’s Holland’s turn. He starts very sedate, then does a bit of sliding; it’s his most conventional effort. Applause welcomes Braxton in. With clean tone he rips through a sheaf of notes. He runs up and down, develops a growl, and repeats a little phrase dozens of times. The theme returns a little awkwardly, and 15-minute tune seems over just like that.

Sound problems aside (“-1” is the only place it’s serious), this is a wonderful sampler, in short time showing all of Braxton’s many faces. His sidemen respond to the challenge, with Lewis great and Holland astonishing. It’s a great little package, and to think we owe it to a cardboard box in the basement!

Rating: *** ¾. Recommended for fans of Braxton or free improvisation; others might find it too noisy.

Songs: Composition 23E; Composition 8C; Composition -1; Composition -2; Composition 8G; Four Winds.

Musicians: Anthony Braxton (sopranino and alto saxes, clarinet, piccolo); plus, on various tracks: Kenny Wheeler (flugelhorn); George Lewis (trombone); Antoine Duhamel (piano); Dave Holland (bass, cello); Francois Mechali (bass); Barry Altschul (drums).

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