David Tohir 25-Mar-2001 Overview

Ever since Louis Armstrong first referred to Be-Bop as "Chinese music," the debate over what exactly is or isnít jazz has raged on. Few have been the focal point for as much disagreement in this debate as Anthony Braxton. Primarily an alto saxophonist, he is a virtuosic improviser on a large array of woodwind instruments, though his playing has been described as being devoid of "swing" and too "European" in its approach, an assessment with which I very much disagree. While his abilities as a player shouldnít be ignored, it is in his composition that he exhibits his profound gifts. It is also over his composition that the what is/isnít jazz debate rages. Having received a formal musical education, his approach has much in common with a 20th century classical aesthetic regarding form and structure, but uses a musical vocabulary that is difficult to hear as anything other than jazz.

His recording career began in the mid 60s with his joining AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), a Chicago-based musicianís collective that promotes improvisational music as a serious art, choosing to call it "great black music" instead of jazz in an attempt to separate itself from a term that seemed, at the time, to be firmly entrenched as a popular genre only. His first recording as a leader, 3 Compositions of New Jazz, is a very good introduction to his work. Released on Delmark with fellow AACM members Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith, and Leroy Jenkins, it is an excellent combination of focused composition and fluid, engaging improvisation. His follow-up, For Alto, was the first of many solo recordings, and remains, along with Saxophone Improvisations Series F and Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 as some of the most engaging solo jazz recordings.

The reference to improvisation in the titles is interesting in that each of the tracks is listed as a composition, giving an indication of just how much Braxtonís compostion relies and is based on improvisation. Composition 113 displays this even more, with the composed parts of the piece providing, essentially, a jumping-off point and motif for extended improvisation.

Braxton reached his stride in a series of albums released on Arista in the mid 70s, in particular New York, Fall 1974, Five Pieces 1975, Creative Orchestra Music 1976 and The Montreaux/Berlin Concerts. It was also a factor that many of the players he had been working with for years seemed to really begin to have a deeper understanding of what it was that he was doing, and also the addition of several others, such as Kenny Wheeler & George Lewis, who seemed to innately grasp his intent. The nature of Braxtonís composition allows it to work well with any players who are confident improvisers, regardless of their background, a fact that gets him dismissed by many jazz purists, who see any of the jazz qualities present on the recordings to be the product of the players and not of him. Nevertheless, some very interesting recordings have been made using a non-jazz approach, such as For Four Orchestras, Composition No. 95 for Two Pianos and Small Ensemble Music (Wesleyan) 1994. In fact, much of his later work has explored this arena. He has also taken to playing piano on some of these recordings.

Another side of Braxton has been his recordings of jazz standards. Seven Standards 1985, Vol 1 & 2, Six Monk's Compositions (1987) and In the Tradition show his great understanding of traditional, mainstream jazz playing, and reveals the seed that is present in all of his work regardless of how far he may stray from what many would consider jazz.

Traditionally, Braxton has titled his works with pictographs of varying complexity. Originally these were made up of simple geometric shapes and lines connecting with numbers and letters. They became more complex over the years and often included color, although it has now become common for the pieces to be listed by number. For an example of the pictographs, many of them are displayed on the covers.

Braxton continues to actively produce exciting music, and through his professorship at Wesleyan University, is able to help instill in the next generation of musicians and composers a sense of adventure and active creativity.

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