Anthony Braxton | Donna Lee

Verve/Free America 5 Tracks Recorded 1972, Paris

The concept of playing in a living and extendable jazz tradition is given a clear-headed performance by Anthony Braxton and associates in this America reissue of a session recorded in Paris in 1972.

Braxton, the supreme innovator, dives right into the bop classic, "Donna Lee", where his thick outlining of the tune is so dutiful that his alto playing verges upon eery caricature. For their part, pianist Michael Smith, bassist Peter Warren, and drummer Oliver Johnson open up the tune's space with carefully aimed tone clusters, agile bass commentary and shifting, nuanced drumming. The tune's forward momentum ends rather abruptly — is this the engineer's doing? — but at least we hear for ourselves that Braxton clearly views bop as an extendable music, and not mere history on a shelf.

Braxton's interest in the tradition further includes two very different alto approaches to the romantic standard ballad, "You Go To My Head": in the first version, Braxton works free of abstracted melody quotes to cry and growl; in the second version, he rises up singing from a heaving sea of rhythmic waves and hammered piano chords.

The remaining two compositions are by Braxton, and they're good examples of his schematic titling system. (He also has titling systems such as the Kelvin and Cobalt series, and others that look like graphic art and are (seemingly) based upon black Egyptian mystical and metaphysical traditions.)

The first Braxton piece is entitled,

  3=HF  |
      G   | COMPOSITION No - 23L

Unusual as the title may seem, it's actually quite functional, as are all of Braxton's titling systems; but more importantly, in its sound and feel, this is very much like an Art Ensemble of Chicago piece: it's about space and sound and silence, and with Braxton on alto and later flute, this music approximates the bitter melancholy of Joseph Jarman's notable composition, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City.

In other words, this doesn't resemble a jazz 'blowing session', for Braxton's unique and rigorous music is more composed and organized than we realize, but it is music for improvisors.

60666 C |
     -66M | COMPOSITION 23K

sounds like classical 'new music' (compare clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre's group with pianist Paul Bley and Steve Swallow on acoustic bass) in its minimalist treatment of sound and silence, with lots of unison playing between the three players, and a tight focus on the sensitive spaces between notes. This is no surprise, coming from a musician who has introduced his musical concerns and knowledge about the music of so-called white Europeans — John Cage, Stockhausen, Lennie Tristano, Xenakis, Ligeti, Paul Desmond, Warne Marsh, and Earl Brown, among others, to the jazz world.

Jazz, make no mistake about it, is still the thesis on the above composition, and indeed this whole CD, but it's Anthony Braxton's own extended and creative thesis that we share in.

This music's very artistic, and personal, and emotional, and is definitely brainy ==> This is Anthony Braxton's music.

He is an important artist. Hear him out.

... and ... so what if it's not to your taste or liking?

Anthony Braxton — alto and soprano saxophones, flute, contrabass clarinet
Michael Smith — piano
Peter Warren — double bass
Oliver Johnson — drums
Here's more information on Anthony Braxton:

Forces In Motion The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton is Graham Lock's book, an essential in-depth look at Braxton, his music, and his essentially humanist philosophies (1988, Da Capo Press).

(Braxton's philosophical and theoretical writings began with his Tri-Axium writings. These and other written papers are available for perusal and purchase.)

We welcome your comments and feedback
• • • • • •
Report by David Fujino
• •
for The Live Music Report

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