Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Braxton, Anthony

Multireedist Anthony Braxton has demonstrated a consistent ability to defy categories as a musician, bandleader, and composer. He has extended the vocabulary of jazz while affirming its roots through his use of experimental techniques in a massive series of solo saxophone performances and ensemble works.

In 1968, the year Braxton launched his career as a performer, jazz was at a crossroads. The music was enjoying localized heights of creative ferment at the same time that its mass appeal was fading. One response to this was fusion, an effort to merge jazz improvisation with rock rhythms and instruments to gain a foothold with the new audience.

Braxton’s response was to charge ahead on the creative front, extending the molten dynamic of free jazz into the classical avant-garde, where he melded it with chance music, atonality, and polytonality.

Braxton became notorious for hour-plus programs of unaccompanied saxophone, group improvisations with no discernible rhythms, an arsenal of reeds that included flutes and a range of saxophones that went from the tiniest squeaking highs –a sopranino—to the vibrating subsonics of an eight-foot high contrabass. Braxton’s clarinets covered almost as wide a range.

At the same time, he led tight-knit small ensembles, made up of some of the most accomplished younger musicians in jazz, who played at levels of tempo and complexity associated with Charlie Parker and the most intense moments of bebop.

Anthony Braxton was born June 4, 1945 in Chicago. As a youth he enjoyed a broad range of music, and sang in a doo-wop vocal group. By his early teens, he discovered jazz and the alto saxophone through the airy tone of Paul Desmond, the lyrical alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, but he was also drawn to the intense, exploratory sounds of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who he heard playing one night in a Chicago bar, while he stood outside, too young to enter. An aficionado of chess and logic, Braxton was also drawn to the music of pianist Cecil Taylor, whose records he would listen to and study alone In his room.

Braxton briefly attended Chicago's Wilson Junior College, where he befriended fellow saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and bassist Jack DeJohnette. After a three-year stint in the Army, Braxton returned to Chicago in 1966, where at the Mitchell's urging he became associated with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

In 1967, he formed a trio, The Creative Construction Company, with AACM members violinist Leroy Jenkins and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The three were joined by AACM cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams on piano to record an LP for Delmark, Three Compositions of New Jazz, in April of 1968. The album featured graph-like representations of the music on its sleeve, and invoked the influence of John Cage's chance-based classical compositions in the liner notes. However, it was Braxton's solo album For Alto, a two-LP set with 73 minutes of unaccompanied saxophone solos which was recorded in 1969 but not released until 1971, that established his musical signature.

While other saxophonists, including Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Giuffre and Eric Dolphy, had previously recorded solo works, Braxton, did something different. He developed his own concepts of structure to sustain his extended improvisations, which drew on the methods of modern classical composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. While the track "To pianist Cecil Taylor" is rooted in blues forms that predate bebop, "To Composer John Cage" explores the saxophone’s capacity to make non-tonal, machine-like noises.

While Braxton's intellect thrived in the fertile atmosphere of the AACM, he struggled to make ends meet. He worked as a chess hustler to pay bills, and enrolled at Chicago's Roosevelt University in hopes of one day teaching philosophy. Discouraged by his inability to earn a living in music, he left Chicago for Paris in 1969.

In Paris, he played and recorded with Smith and Jenkins, but found audiences initially unreceptive to their music. He returned to New York with an Italian group, Musica Elettronica Viva, in 1970, but soon found himself hustling chess once again in Manhattan's Washington Square Park.

At New York's Village Vanguard, Braxton met pianist Chick Corea, who invited him to join his working group with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. Corea reformed the group as a quartet which he named Circle. Circle’s high-speed, improvised interactions generated tremendous excitement, and a pair of albums released by Blue Note years later.

When Corea moved on to create his jazz-fusion group Return to Forever, Holland and Altschul became the core of the Anthony Braxton Quartet, a group that served as Braxton’s main outlet in coming years. At times, Braxton's compositions for the group invoke traditional forms like the ballad or march: at others, they adapt or openly subvert these forms, such as the bebop "head": he has described his “Composition 23B” as an “atonal ‘Donna Lee,’” the bebop classic first recorded by saxophonist Charlie Parker.

While there was never a permanent brass player in Braxton's Quartet, he developed a close affinity with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, a superb technician who could negotiate Braxton’s demanding heads. Wheeler's refined, expressive sound and understated style offered a subtle counterpoint to the saxophonist's extroverted approach.

When Wheeler left the Quartet, a young trombonist named George Lewis, a fellow Chicagoan and member of the AACM, took his place. One fine offshoot from the quartet's work is Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds. Compositions such as "Four Winds" were played by a quartet of Braxton, Altschul and multireedist Sam Rivers, for whom Holland and Altschul also worked regularly as a rhythm section.

Braxton eschewed conventional titles for his compositions, and instead identified each with a diagram consisting of a few lines and letters, some resembling circuit diagrams. Braxton later added sequential numbers to the diagrams, making it easier to track his expanding bodies of work, but the compositions themselves were still hard to define.

In 1973, record producer Michael Cuscuna encouraged Braxton to sign with the new Arista label, which had just been launched by former Columbia head Clive Davis. Braxton began a six-year association with Arista, which brought him mainstream critical acclaim for the first time with the release of Creative Orchestra Music 1976, a big band album which earned him Down Beat Magazine's Record of the Year Award in their critics poll of 1977. With a top-notch studio band that included long-time associates like Roscoe Mitchell and Holland and Altschul and also featured studio stalwarts like Jon Faddis, Cecil Bridgewater and Seldon Powell, the album drew on inspirations from John Phillip Sousa to Duke Ellington and Stockhausen. Arista also allowed Braxton to explore his ambitions as a classical composer, recording works such as “Composition No. 82” for Four Orchestras and “No.95” for Two Pianos.

After a period of flux in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Braxton quartet again solidified, this time with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway. The group’s new working method marked a significant new development in Braxton’s work. He began to distribute parts of different compositions to the quartet members, encouraging them to insert materials from other compositions into the work as it was performed. This technique destabilizes his compositions and adds new frictions to a performance, creating combinations that cannot be predicted by either the performers or the audience. An excellent example of the group’s complex blend of multiple compositions and free improvisation can be heard on the recording "Composition 67 (+147 +96)" from the album Willisau (Quartet) 1991.

In 1991, Braxton accepted an appointment to teach at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. At Wesleyan, he would often take summer courses that appealed to him. Among these was a course in the music of Amerindians. This led him to an interest in trance music from around the world, which soon manifested itself in his work as what he called “Ghost Trance Music.” This refers to the "Ghost Dance" meetings of 1890, in which a variety of Native American groups came together to record their collective lore and spiritual and musical practices.

Braxton's Ghost Trance music is characterized by long strings of even eighth notes that develop a distinct rhythmic momentum. Along with these initial patterns, the musicians involved in a ghost trance piece also receive other subordinate written materials to be used during a performance. These works have resulted in some of Braxton’s most ambitious recording projects, including eight CDs on the Leo label of a 1996 engagement at Yoshi’s in San Francisco and a nine-CD set on Firehouse 12 by the 12(+1)tet at New York’s Iridium in 2006. He followed the Ghost Trance compositions with the Diamond Curtain and Falling River series, in which his small group compositions include interactive electronic elements.

Braxton has worked with major figures in experimental composition and electronic music, including Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Alvin Curran and David Rosenboom. He was among the first American musicians to form strong links with the European Free Improvisation movement, including recording duets with saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey. In 2007 and 2008, he worked with some major figures of free jazz for the first time, including Cecil Taylor, William Parker, and Milford Graves.

Braxton’s embrace of avant-garde classical music has led some to ask whether he is in fact a jazz musician, but he has remained loyal, in his own way, to the jazz canon. He can be heard charging through Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” on contrabass clarinet, on early jazz classics like “Stardust” and “Rosetta,” and has devoted recordings to the work of Charlie Parker, the Tristano circle and pianist Andrew Hill. In 1987, he demonstrated his profound knowledge of Thelonious Monk’s work by recording a tribute album which included lesser-known Monk compositions like Four in One and Played Twice.

Braxton’s collaborations are just as broad. When he first arrived in Paris in 1969 he recorded in a small group under the joint leadership of saxophonist Archie Shepp and drummer Philly Joe Jones. In 1978, he recorded a two-LP set of duets with the great bop drummer Max Roach, while in 1974 he recorded standards such as "All The Things You Are" with one of his early influences, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, on a session led by Dave Brubeck.

While Braxton’s vast and complex array of compositions may give him the air of a technocrat, his personality is utterly opposite, witty and constantly open to fresh interpretations of his work. They’re qualities that have made him an inspiring teacher. Among his students who have become significant musicians are percussionists Gino Robair and Kevin Norton, bassist Chris Dahlgren, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorsen, and a small army of saxophonists including Steve Lehman, James Fei and Kyle Brenders. In his introduction to his book Composition Notes, Braxton writes, “Don't misuse this material to have only ‘correct’ performances without spirit or risk. Don't use my work to ‘kill’ young aspiring students of music.... If the music is played too correctly it was probably played wrong.”

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Contributor: Stuart Broomer