November 29, 2008

Anthony Braxton: The Complete Arista Recordings

Anthony Braxton: The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic 242) (8 CDs)

Ah, the 1970s…imagine a time when a major record label would see fit to sign an über-avant-gardist like Anthony Braxton to a (semi)lucrative, long-term contract! Yes, thanks to producers (and music lovers) Michael Cuscuna and Steve Backer, Clive Davis’s newly-launched Arista Records released nine titles by Mr. Braxton during the years 1975 to 1980 comprising an astonishing array of wildly diverse music: from a solo saxophone recital to a massive, Stockhausen-inspired composition for four symphony orchestras; from the telepathic improvisatory interplay of the classic quartet to the ritual-ceremonial music Composition 95 for two pianos (performed by Frederic Rzewski and Ursala Oppens); from an all-star big band session that conjures up the spirits of both John Phillip Sousa and Anton Webern to duets with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and synthesist Richard Teitelbaum. Plus a saxophone quartet (Composition 37) and two takes (with differing ensembles) of the prickly and abstract Composition 76 (For Trio). Not to mention a smattering of jazz standards from “You Stepped Out of Dream” to “Giant Steps” with a rip-snorting version of “Maple Leaf Rag” thrown in to emphasize that, no matter how out-there he might seem, Braxton is part of The Tradition. Obviously, Braxton seized upon this fortuitous (and as it turned out, fleeting) opportunity to make the broadest possible cross-section of his music available to a world-wide audience, despite the commercial world’s entrenched desire to pigeon-hole him in the jazz bins.

I would have been content to sit in New York and record Anthony’s quartet with Kenny Wheeler (later George Lewis), Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul every day for those six years. I loved that band and those people…But Anthony had other ideas – lots of them. And they took us to Oberlin, Ohio, Chicago, Woodstock, Montreux, Berlin, and Milano on a variety of projects, most of which seemed impossible for various logistical or budgetary reasons. Anthony had a way about him that convinced you that the impossible was doable and needed to be done. Michael Cuscuna, “Producer’s Note” (p.20)

The Arista recordings not only reaffirmed Braxton’s status as a virtuoso instrumentalist across the entire woodwind family, they also (and more importantly) cemented his reputation as a serious composer of art music – like it or not. But whatever nascent-60s idealism that had survived in the corporate culture of the 1970s was surely obliterated by 1980 and, despite critical accolades and Mr. Cuscuna and Mr. Becker’s heartfelt advocacy, Arista summarily terminated Braxton’s contract and promptly deleted his entire catalog. For the most part, all of this music has remained tragically out of print and unavailable ever since. At one point in the 1990s, Michael Cuscuna was asked if Mosaic Records had any plans to release Braxton’s Arista output since the boutique label’s focus on lovingly produced boxed sets of obscure but important recordings was a perfect vehicle for such a project. At that time, Mr. Cuscuna responded that, unfortunately, the original tapes were “lost.” Accordingly, I spent the next several years on eBay completing my collection of the original LPs since it was looking like this material would never be properly issued on CD. Much to my amazement, it was announced this past spring that The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton would be released in October. Without hesitation, I preordered for immediate delivery and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t believe it was really true until the thing arrived in my mailbox. Lordy, it truly is a Lazarus-like miracle to have this crucially important but long-lost music available once again!

Mosaic has done its usual fastidious job with a twenty-page, 11”x11” glossy booklet containing numerous exquisite photographs, a comprehensive discography, and track-by-track annotations by Braxton scholar Mike Heffley. Apparently those lost original tapes were found as the sound quality is superb, richly detailed and revealing of even the densest sonic textures. Sure, it’s expensive and, in these uncertain economic times, might seem an extravagant luxury. On the other hand, this set is limited to a mere 5,000 individually numbered copies and I have no doubt that, when they’re gone, this brilliant music will once again disappear into the unforgiving void. So, carpé diem!

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