At the beginning of this month, Hat Hut Records released the third edition (remastered) of a historical performance by the Anthony Braxton Quartet playing at the Dortmund Jazz Festival in Germany on October 31, 1976. In spite of this relatively early date in the Braxton chronology, this live concert recording was not released for the first time until 1991, when Hat Hut released it on its hatART label. The label for the reissue is hatOLOGY, presumably created for significant archival content.
In this case the significance has much to do with the fact that the quartet Braxton was leading lasted for barely six months. As usual, Braxton himself was playing reed instruments of a wide variety of sizes. These included saxophones (sopranino, alto, and contrabass) and clarinets (E-flat and contrabass). Much of the front-line work involves exchanges with George Lewis on trombone. Rhythm is provided by Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on percussion. The only other recordings of this quartet I have been able to track down to date come from the Arista album The Montreux/Berlin Concerts and consist of three pieces recorded at the Berliner Philharmonie on November 4, 1976.
I first became aware of Braxton’s work when RCA/BMG reissued Creative Orchestra Music 1976, recorded as studio sessions in New York on February of 1976. The other three members of the quartet were part of this project. Presumably, they began preparing for their visit to Germany after those sessions had concluded.
I confess that I was drawn to this album because the titles of all the tracks were visual. Here is an example:
Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 65” (from Wikipedia, fair use)
More often than not, Braxton identifies his work with a letter following a number. On the Arista releases, they are identified as “Opus,” rather than “Composition.” On the RCA/BMG reissue, each one is called simply “Piece” and given the same numbers as the track numbers. Any attempt to coordinate image to performance is left as an exercise for the listener.
Notation aside, the performances led by Braxton and Lewis involve a wide diversity of approaches to free-blowing expressiveness. The energy of these exchanges is far more significant than any relation to traditional forms (or, for that matter, rhetoric). Mind you, “Composition 6 C,” played at Dortmund, ventures into a rather eccentric march, which suggests that one should be ready for a sense of humor in the other selections. (I think I am prepared to make a good case for “Composition 40 (O)” in that regard.)
Ultimately, the best way to get used to listening to Braxton compositions is to get used to listening to them. I think it would be fair to say that there is a ludic quality to every piece that Braxton prepares for performance. The listener encountering the results for the first time has to be willing to play the game, even if the rules of that game have not been agreed upon in advance. (Remember the episode about learning to play chess in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.) In that context I can provide neither guidance nor recommendations. All I can say is that, whenever I listen to Braxton, I always feel that I am having a good time!