AMN Reviews: Revisiting Anthony Braxton’s Early Solo Saxophone Work

I stopped accumulating downloaded music sometime in the late 2000s when, scrolling through the contents of my nearly-full 1 terabyte external hard drive, I spotted the 6-CD historical retrospective of Polish jazz that I hadn’t listened to in the five years since I had downloaded it. Indeed I still had it, but did I need it, still if ever? Abundance creates whole new levels of compulsion, under which desire can continue unchecked despite aural and mental satiety.

Anthony Braxton enthusiasts understood this dynamic several decades in advance of the digital music era. Even then, most of us necessarily learned to draw the line somewhere: while you’d always find noteworthy exceptions, you tended to focus on a particular period of Braxton’s work, or a group with specific backing musicians, or a kind of instrumental ensemble, or even a record label. Often these would be determined in part by your first exposure to Braxton’s music. While I suspect the first recording I ever heard was the copy of New York, Fall 1974 housed at the college radio station where I first DJ’ed in the middle and late 1980s, the first Braxton recording I owned was the double-LP Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 I scored for $4 from the cut-out bin at Wax Stacks in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

So I’ve always been partial to Braxton’s quartet and solo work, and the Tricentric Foundation’s recent announcement of an “official bootleg” 1971 solo recording available for free through this year’s holiday season compelled me to go ahead and add one more downloaded recording to my collection. Since 2011, when they first released Solo (France) 1971 in its “Braxton Bootleg” series, Tricentric has augmented the already voluminous body of Braxton recordings by at least a third. For those keeping score, that’s over one hundred additional recordings in a total discography that discogs.com currently numbers at 309.

Nevertheless, Solo (France) 1971 is a valuable entry in the Braxton catalog, historically and in its own right. It stands between his two watershed double-LP solo alto saxophone recordings, For Alto (Delmark 1969) and Saxophone Improvisations, Series F (America 1972). For Alto proved to be a groundbreaking moment in the history of recorded jazz and a benchmark for saxophonists to come. It’s a consummate statement not despite but because of its sonic imperfections: while Chuck Nessa achieved some post-production cleanup of the home recordings Braxton made in his Parkway Community Center apartment, For Alto still retains an urgent grittiness and presence as vital as the music itself.

His 1972 follow-up for the America label could be viewed in this context as a studio-quality redo of For Alto if it weren’t for the fact that here Braxton featured newer material, specifically the Composition 26 series of solo works as opposed to the Composition 8 series featured on For Alto. Then in 1975, the Futura label released Braxton’s LP Recital Paris 71, a misnomer in that side 2 was a studio recording of a four-part overdubbed piano piece. Side 1 however featured a 25-minute rendition of the Duke Ellington standard “Come Sunday,” from a performance at the Theatre de l’Epeé des Bois in Paris; soprano saxophone specialist Steve Lacy was also on that bill and thereby awakened to the possibilities of solo performance that he went on to explore at length.

The first two tracks on Solo (France) 1971, and the clear standouts to my ears, were issued in 1998 on the CD News From the 1970s, which accompanied the current issue of the Italian magazine Musica Jazz. A haphazard piece work, News mistitles the two solo alto tracks and separates them in its running order, placing between them a duo with Dave Holland on cello and a quartet date with Kenny Wheeler and a French rhythm section. So if anything, it’s worth having Solo (France) 1971 solely for restoring these two pieces in their full and proper context.

Track one is a nine-minute rendering of a gorgeous ballad, which the Tricentric release calls “Composition 26A” and restructures.net calls “Composition 26D.” Here I’m inclined to believe restructures, because it’s without question the same tune Braxton gives an all-too brief (2:20) treatment to open the second disc of Saxophone Improvisations, Series F. Played mostly in the alto’s middle-high register, this France 1971 version begins with a quiet near-octave drop and then uses a climbing 4-note arpeggio as a signature motif. Braxton takes two runs through the theme, solos while routinely suggesting and even quoting the theme, and then goes “back to the head” in traditional fashion. In fact it’s perhaps Braxton at his most “singable,” and if the long-mistaken notion of his music as “too cerebral” still exists, this track can put that notion to bed for good.

France 1971’s second track track is without question “Composition 8F,” which Braxton rendered in jaw-droppingly blistering fashion as Track 2 on For Alto. Clocking in just 70 seconds shy of the original rendition, what this version lacks in length and firey intensity it makes up for, as does the whole release, with the overall recording quality, which features nicely balanced roomsound and just a touch of reverb. Comparing the two performances also makes it clear how well-structured the piece is, with Braxton’s shifts in attack, register and tone–from the overblown runs and staccato blasts to the most altissimo squeals–all clearly deliberate and planned in advance.

At the release’s midpoint stands a version of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” which Braxton renders admirably. Then come two more originals: “Composition 8J” is a study in eighth-note patterns, showing Braxton working through a variety of scales and chords, with more than enough melody to avoid charges of being a mere formalistic exercise. This piece also made it to the Series F release, and again in live performance Braxton extends the treatment by a full minute-and-a-half, working through slightly different scales from the onset but still making the composition recognizable.

Closing out the set is “Composition 26G,” which explores multiphonics, or the production of multiple notes simultaneously. In this rendition, Braxton works mostly from the stratosphere down, lingering in extreme altissimos while picking up lower notes along the way. At the three-minute mark, Braxton hums at pitches below his playing to enhance his harmonic and tonal production. In hindsight one can see this piece as a textbook example of techniques Steve Lacy and Evan Parker would soon be using to great effect, Lacy in his various “Duck” pieces and Parker in his Chronoscope recordings en route to forming his mature solo style.

The total running time of Solo (France) 1971 stands at a little over half an hour, which seems short of a full live performance and begs the question if the tapes ran out or haven’t fully surfaced. In fact, their origin adds to yet another lingering confusion: Tricentric’s release notes indicate that the recording “comes from a reel to reel tape in Mr. Braxton’s possession in a box labeled ‘Ghent’” and that “research by Hugo DeCreen suggests that this is indeed a solo concert from France 1971, and that the Ghent solo concert was in 1973.” Regardless, the downloaded tracks from Tricentric bear the words “Solo (Ghent) 1969 to 1971” in both the album folder and the individual tracks’ album title fields.

Until the details get sorted out, it’s perhaps best to put aside the discography nerd in you–and just enjoy the music.

–Tom Orange

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One thought on “AMN Reviews: Revisiting Anthony Braxton’s Early Solo Saxophone Work

  1. Great write-up. Long-time Braxton fan, and agree, too much to listen to. Always partial to his solo work, and also with Circle. Haven’t listened to too much in years (drives everyone out of the house, including the dog), but I miss it, and this article is just the spark to have me go dig out some records.

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