2008 Jazz Poll: The Unprecedented Freedom of Anthony Braxton

How the runaway Best Reissue winner came to pass

Clive Davis, recently fired by Columbia Records over a matter of suspiciously missing funds, was looking to get back in the game, parlaying a couple of decrepit labels and a lot of chutzpah into his second act, Arista Records. Anthony Braxton, once the enfant terrible of the AACM, was barely scratching out a living in Paris, not even sure there was a game. Davis figured a jazz line would spruce up his label and hired Steve Backer from Impulse! to put it together. Backer rounded up old catalogs from Savoy (home of Charlie Parker) and new material from Freedom, a French label that found itself awash in avant-gardists who could no longer find American labels. Then he invited Braxton to New York, hyping him as the new New Thing.

The relationship worked about as well as it could. Braxton's first three albums sold well and garnered critical acclaim, peaking when Downbeat's critics hailed Creative Orchestra Music 1976 as Record of the Year. Later albums slipped away, partly due to the inherent difficulty of Braxton's compositions, but mostly because all across the board, jazz was fading from public interest—fewer places more so than on Arista's bottom line. The deal ended in 1980, after Arista had released nine Braxton albums totaling 13 LPs. They all soon vanished from print, and so they remained—ironically, Braxton's most famous albums were the hardest to find. He kept recording, prolifically: I count 154 albums under his name from 1968 to 2008, many doubles, and no fewer than 10 sets in the four-to-nine-CD range. But if you weren't jazz-conscious in the 1970s, you've most likely never heard him.

Mosaic's new eight-CD box, The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, restores Braxton's Aristas to print, at least as long as the limited edition lasts. As its Best Reissue victory in the 2008 Voice Jazz Poll makes clear, it's a huge event for the few people who care: Braxton was the first great alto saxophonist I heard, and I latched onto him so completely that when I finally caught up with Charlie Parker, I couldn't hear what the fuss was. But after listening to these records again after 30 years, what strikes me most is how typically they fit into Braxton's kit. The quartets on Five Pieces 1975 and The Montreux/Berlin Concerts slash and swing ferociously.

Braxton as a young man with a horn
Martin S. Gold
Braxton as a young man with a horn

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Other albums include the extended sax solos Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979, the hot-and-cold Duets 1976 with Muhal Richard Abrams, and one of those concept pieces that reads better than it sounds: For Trio. The big-band Creative Orchestra Music 1976 is lavishly detailed, with a marvelous piece of Sousa march radically deconstructed in the middle. Finally, there are two albums Braxton doesn't play on, For Two Pianos and For Four Orchestras, both serious ideas that acquit themselves gracefully. Over time, Braxton returned to each of these models, formats, and concepts; all that's missing here is a set of standards, which testifies to the freedom he enjoyed on Arista—most labels would've lobbied for something with a readymade marketing hook.

Braxton landed a teaching job at Wesleyan and picked up a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1994, but he never again enjoyed the limelight these records brought him. They're the key to rediscovering him, but remain only the tip of a very large iceberg.

 
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