Anthony Braxton - reeds; George Lewis - trombone; Richard Abrams - piano; Dave Holland - bass; Barry Altschul - drums
Visionary composer and multi-reedist Anthony Braxton assembled a dream crew for his appearance at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival. With Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, George Lewis on trombone, Dave Holland on bass, Barry Altschul on drums and the leader on everything from alto sax to sopranino sax to contrabass clarinet, this creative ensemble rolled out an eight-movement suite of provocative music ("Composition No. 70") which he dedicated to Duke Ellington, who had passed away two years earlier.
Employing a heavily theoretical approach to jazz, which has as much in common with 20th century classical composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edgard Varese as it does with Duke, Braxton stunned this Carnegie Hall crowd with his highly idiosyncratic music. Movement "A" opens with a pensive trilling on the keys by Abrams, accompanied by ominous unisons from Braxton's contrabass clarinet, Lewis' trombone and Holland's arco bass, while Altschul floats over the proceedings in rubato fashion with cymbal washes and well placed drum accents. In section "B," Braxton switches to a buttery-toned alto sax and engages in some gentle exchanges with Holland, who smacks the strings with the woody part of his bow (a classical technique known as "col legno battuto"). The piece picks up in intensity with some rather spiky punctuations along the way, ultimately yielding to a whirlwind collective improvisation. "C" contains some dramatic stop-time phrases that cut the silence like a knife. Trombonist Lewis also engages in a freewheeling duet with drummer Altschul during this provocative section.
Braxton's virtuosic flights on clarinet rise above the fray on section "D" while Holland also stretches here with a strong pizzicato solo, underscored by Altschul's supportive brushwork. Braxton fairly explodes on soprano sax in the middle of this tumultuous piece, which settles into a kind of chamber-like Zen near its conclusion. Section "E" opens with some gentle piano patterns by Abrams, supported by Altschul's textural approach to the kit. Abrams opens up considerably in this stirring duet for piano and drums, recalling some of the intensity and fire of the historic Cecil Taylor-Max Roach duet concert at Columbia University on December 15, 1979. The full quintet enters to engage in a kind of conversational debate among the instruments, with piano maintaining a firm upper hand before yielding to Braxton's ultra-low contrabass sax (which sounds somewhat like a motorcycle driving off in the distance on the highway).
Section "F" is a stellar showcase for drummer Altschul, a longtime collaborator of Braxton's going back to their days together with Holland and pianist Chick Corea in the band Circle (circa 1969-1970). Altschul's melodic approach to the kit and sense of dynamics is in play during the first part of this movement before the band returns to offer sharp, contrapuntal statements before Braxton takes off on a daring solo alto sax excursion, flaunting his extended techniques on the instrument while also revealing his love of Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy. This movement also contains the widest range of dynamics in the entire 23-minute suite -- from a whisper to a dissonant blast of sonic shrapnel.
Section "G" is pure Zen, where silence is a major player. It proceeds pensively with Holland soloing with typically brilliant, assured bass lines as Braxton and Lewis offer sparse commentary. At the point that Abrams and Altschul enter, Holland switches to arco work and the piece picks up steam, culminating in a grand crescendo and eventually fading to cymbal washes. The final section, "H," has Braxton and Lewis playing cat-and-mouse on clarinet and trombone, respectively, as Holland and Altschul underscore on bowed bass and drums. Toward the end of this finale, the band drops out and Abrams unleashes pure mayhem on the keyboard, eventually letting the final notes ring out and hang in spacious Carnegie Hall until the adoring audience breaks the silence with a deluge of applause.
Following this appearance at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival, Braxton would bring a quartet to Europe (essentially this same lineup sans Abrams) to perform at festivals in Austria (Graz, on October 28) and in Germany (Dortmund Jazz Festival on October 31, Berlin Jazz Days on November 4 and 6). All of those performances were recorded and are part of Braxton's known discography. But this one-time-only performance at Carnegie Hall on June 27, 1976 (and the only one featuring the quartet augmented by Muhal Richard Abrams) is truly a rare gem and a must-have for Braxton completists.
Born in Chicago on June 4, 1945, Braxton had an interest in both jazz and classical music as a teenager. He attended the Chicago School of Music from 1959-1963, then studied philosophy and composition at Roosevelt University. Following a stint in the service, he returned to Chicago in 1966 and began collaborating with other like-minded musicians, including pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell. They would all become charter members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). In 1967, Braxton formed the Creative Construction Company with violinist Leroy Jenkins and trumpeter Leo Smith and the following year he recorded For Alto, a solo saxophone showcase and free jazz manifesto. After moving to Paris in 1969, he began playing with bassist Dave Holland, pianist Chick Corea, and drummer Barry Altschul. They formed a group called Circle, which remained together for a year, during which time they released a few provocative and influential recordings. Braxton also played on Dave Holland's debut as a leader, 1972's influential Conference of the Birds. Holland and Altschul would remain a remarkable fluid rhythm tandem in Braxton-led groups through the '70s. During that decade, he also collaborated with the Italian free improv group Musica Elettronica Viva and with British avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey.
Braxton recorded prolifically as a leader through the '80s and '90s for a number of labels in Europe (Black Saint, Leo, Hat Hut and Hat Art). In 1985, he began teaching at Mills College in California and subsequently joined the music faculty at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, where he is currently a tenured professor. In 1994, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called "genius grant"). The $300,000, awarded to individuals nominated for outstanding and original contributions to their field, allowed him to finance some large-scale projects he had long envisioned, including an opera. In 1998, he performed his "Composition No. 70" (which he premiered at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival) at a concert in Washington D.C. (later released as 4 Compositions on his own Braxtonhouse label). In the early 2000s, Braxton performed and recorded with his "12+1tet" and also made a number of jazz recordings, often featuring him as a pianist rather than a saxophonist. He remains one of the most important and respected voices in music today and continues to record prolifically for the Leo label.
-Written by Bill Milkowski