Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton was born in 1945 and grew up on Chicago’s South Side, as fascinated by technology as by music. (There’s a reason his compositions are often represented — “titled,” if you like — by what look like wiring schematics.) He joined the Army after high school, and when he returned to Chicago after spending time in South Korea, he heard about the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and was invited to join by Roscoe Mitchell.

His 1968 album 3 Compositions of New Jazz, as declarative and prophetic a title as Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, introduced an entirely new compositional voice. That was quickly followed by For Alto, a double LP of solo saxophone pieces dedicated to John Cage, Cecil Taylor, Leroy Jenkins, and others. Braxton has spent his entire career developing and exploring a few key concepts, one of which is what he calls “trans-idiomatic” music-making, which amounts to a refusal to recognize a dichotomy between composition and improvisation. His core methodology is “language music,” which consists mostly of a set of twelve essential ways of playing (long tones, trills, multiphonics, legato formings, etc.) which can be combined or pitted against each other depending on the mood of the moment, but also includes two strategic parameters — “gradient formings,” in which a quality of the music changes over time (e.g., it gets faster, or it becomes more staccato), and “sub-identity formings,” in which a musician or musicians can shift from one composition to another, inserting it into (or playing it against) what the rest of the ensemble is already doing.

Understanding the conceptual underpinnings of Braxton’s music is key to wrestling with his massive discography. His work can be grouped under a few umbrellas, though there are outlier albums in every era. In the 1970s, he first led a group with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and percussionist Steve McCall; pianist and AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams occasionally joined them. He later formed a quartet with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul, and various front-line instrumentalists, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and trombonist George Lewis most prominent among them. Braxton, Holland and Altschul were joined by saxophonist Sam Rivers for the bassist’s classic 1973 album Conference Of The Birds

An Arista Records contract allowed Braxton to release the almost conventional quartet discs New York, Fall 1974 and Five Pieces 1975, as well as the massive For Four Orchestras (yes, playing simultaneously) and the brilliant double live LP The Montreux/Berlin Concerts. His output has always been too much for any one label to handle, though, and he’s had long, overlapping relationships with Black Saint, Leo, and hatART, while also releasing titles through his own Braxton House and New Braxton House imprints. In the 1980s, he led a notable quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. They didn’t enter the studio until 1993, but a UK tour in 1985 yielded four live releases (on Leo) and a book, Graham Lock’s Forces In Motion, possibly the best introduction to Braxton the man and the musician available, and that includes his own extensive writings.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Braxton’s music became increasingly complex and theory-driven, and he frequently assembled ensembles of nine to more than a dozen members, while also performing solo and in duos with a broad range of partners. The extraordinary talent of his collaborators has made the results vivid and thrilling, even as he seems to have shifted from releasing individual albums to dropping massive boxed sets on the listener — 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006, for example, is a nine-CD set of live recordings with a 13-member ensemble, and it’s great, as long as you only try to get through a single hour-long composition at a time.

While writing seemingly nonstop, Braxton has frequently taken time to demonstrate a deep love for the jazz tradition. He has recorded albums of music by Thelonious Monk and Lennie Tristano, as well as numerous collections of standards, often in collaboration with musicians who are not part of his regular ensembles. He’s also popped up as a guest in some surprising places, including a mid ’70s Dave Brubeck album and a live collaboration with Detroit electronic noise act Wolf Eyes.

A catalog as deep as Braxton’s is destined to go unappreciated; there’s just too much for one person who’s got anything else going on in their own life to ever hear it all. But Braxton is more concerned with doing the work than with who might eventually hear it. As he told me when I interviewed him in 2021, “I’ve approached my music in a way that’s slightly different than the jazz musicians and the classical musicians. I wanted to have an experience, I wanted that experience to be trans-idiomatic as opposed to mono-idiomatic, and I wanted to learn how to use my processes in a way that continues to evolve the kind of things which excited me. And so if one person comes who likes only one composition that I’ve done, I will be very happy, because no one owes me anything.”

3 Compositions Of New Jazz cover

Braxton’s debut album features trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and (on two of its three tracks) pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. All of these men were older than the 22-year-old Braxton (Abrams was almost 40), but they understood and embraced his ideas. The opening “Composition 6E” begins with an unaccompanied voice singing the melody, before Braxton, Smith and Jenkins begin an extended collective improvisation with fanfare-like qualities. Periodically, the leader strikes a snare drum to keep things on track, but there’s no concern with “time” in the traditional sense. Another equally open-form piece follows, “Composition 6D,” on which Abrams’ piano dominates, and the album ends with “The Bell,” a Smith composition with a lush, romantic feel.

Town Hall 1972 cover

Two of the three pieces on this album are performed by Braxton, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Phillip Wilson. They start with a medley of two pieces with his usual chemical-formula titles, dedicated to Jerome Cooper and Fredric Rzewski respectively, then stretch the standard “All The Things You Are” on the musical dissection table for nearly a quarter of an hour. The saxophonist shifts at lightning speed from bebop-derived melodies to squalling “free jazz” blowing to subtle explorations of pure sound, and Wilson is an aggressive, challenging partner, leaving Holland to glue it all together. The concert’s second half is much different. Wilson is replaced by Barry Altschul, and saxophonist John Stubblefield and vocalist Jeanne Lee join the ensemble for a 35-minute piece that feels at times like an avant-garde opera.

The Montreux/Berlin Concerts cover

Braxton’s contribution to the 1970s vogue for double live albums is a gorgeous documentation of two quartets. On half the record, he’s joined by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and on the other half, trombonist George Lewis, with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul providing support throughout. On the longest piece, the nearly 24-minute “29 M 36,” the quartet with Lewis is augmented by the Berlin New Music Group in a meeting of complex jazz/improv and modern composition. The other pieces run the gamut from quiet, atmospheric explorations to bouncing post-bebop joy-dances.

Anthony Braxton cover

This 1969 album, recorded for the BYG label while Braxton and company were in Paris, features trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and percussionist Steve McCall. Though it’s under Braxton’s name, it was a group, and compositional duties are divided relatively equally. Smith’s love of space and contrasting instrumental voices rather than conventional harmony show up in his “The Light On The Dalta”; Jenkins’ “Simple Like” lives up to its title with a pastoral, folkish melody; and Braxton’s piece, which has a diagram for a title, written out as “B-Xo/N-O-1-47a,” is a side-long collage of moments, some loud and high-energy, others soft and subtle. Braxton’s voice is still forming, and the music may disappoint listeners seeking the fiery passion of conventional “free jazz,” but there are wonders to absorb.

Creative Orchestra Music 1976 cover

This may be one of the best things anyone’s ever spent Clive Davis’s money on. In the mid ’70s, Braxton was signed to Arista Records, and he got funding for this astonishing album featuring 22 brilliant avant-gardists ranging from Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, and Muhal Richard Abrams to modern classical composer Frederic Rzewski (who plays piano and bass drum) and synth wizard Richard Teitelbaum. Smith and Abrams conduct many of the pieces, in addition to performing. The music includes hard-swinging big band romps, abstract soundscapes, and the hilarious “22-M (Opus 58),” Braxton’s version of a John Philip Sousa march.

Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983 cover

In the early 1980s, Braxton formed a series of small groups based in traditional jazz instrumentation. This quartet paired him with trombonist George Lewis, tootling and moaning through speedy, intricate melodies with bassist John Lindberg and percussionist Gerry Hemingway backing them up. The first piece, “Composition No. 105A,” is a 20-minute journey with the feel of a multi-part suite, while the three that follow are more concise but just as exploratory, and often have a free, bouncing sort of swing.

Sextet (Parker) 1993 cover

In 1993, Braxton went to Europe to perform the music of Charlie Parker with trumpeter Paul Smoker, tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, pianist Misha Mengelberg, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. This 11-CD set gathers four complete concerts (Cologne, Antwerp, Zurich and Amsterdam, the latter featuring Han Bennink on drums) plus studio material. The performances are anything but straight bebop; Braxton and band subdivide into smaller groups often, and reduce the melodies to shards at times, but the music is always played with deep thought and intense feeling. Despite its size, this box could be welcoming to the Braxton neophyte.

Birth & Rebirth cover

Despite his reputation as a fierce, cerebral avant-gardist, Anthony Braxton has always loved and honored the jazz tradition, and Max Roach did much more over his decades-long career than just help create bebop; he was always looking (and moving) forward. So this duo album is very much a conversation between kindred spirits from two different generations. The seven tracks, improvised in the studio, flow seamlessly — the drummer always seems to know where the saxophonist is headed, and lays the perfect beat (which often manages to also function as a countermelody) beneath him, building the road they’re both driving on.

12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 cover

This audio Blu-Ray contains 12 performances by groups ranging from six to nine members; the shortest piece is 41 minutes, the longest 73. The music is constructed via a somewhat inscrutable methodology, but has dynamic energy and a surprising degree of focus given its collectively improvised nature. The instrumentation, which includes accordion, violin, cello and multiple harpists in addition to an array of reeds and brass, all anchored by tuba, allows it to sidestep questions of genre and become something like an environment. Don’t try to absorb it all in one megadose — pick a piece, get comfortable, and let it wash over you for an hour or so. 

Four Compositions (GTM) 2000 cover

Braxton composes using a variety of highly codified systems, but he always grants tremendous latitude to the members of his ensembles; they can improvise freely, or quote other compositions of his while performing, etc. Ghost Trance Music, a system he came up with in the late ’90s, yielded surprisingly melodic and appealing results. Four Compositions (GTM) 2000, recorded with pianist Kevin Uehlinger, bassist Keith Witty, and drummer Noam Schatz, has a lurching, bouncing swing reminiscent of Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch; its long, somewhat beboppish eighth-note melodies, and Braxton’s extended solos, are laid atop constantly shifting but still steady-enough-to-follow rhythmic foundations.

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