Since he released the completely solo For Alto in 1968, the accepted image of Anthony Braxton has been that he is more a theoretician and art music composer than a jazz musician. Therefore, it might seem strange that Mosaic Records is giving his Complete Arista Recordings one of their fabled box set treatments. But Braxton is both -- and much more. This set -- as well as the original Arista recordings -- were produced by Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic/Blue Note label head. The sheer scope of these recordings is staggering. What we get in this amazingly detailed collection is the weightiest argument yet for Braxton's range and depth of field as a musical thinker and his role as a pillar of modern jazz. The individual albums -- New York, Fall 1974; Five Pieces, 1975; Creative Orchestra Music, 1976; Duets, 1976; For Trio; The Montreux/Berlin Concerts; Alto Saxophone Improvisations, 1979; For Four Orchestras; For Two Pianos -- showcase him in a rainbow of settings, from quintets and duets, to trios, quartets, and solo; as the leader of a big band, and as a playing conductor. The players are a who's who of the vanguard in both America and Europe: Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Jerome Cooper, Leo Smith, Cecil Bridgewater, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis, Karl Berger, Ursula Oppens, Frederic Rzewski, Phillip Wilson, Henry Threadgill, and many more.
Given the wide variations in track times, sequencing this set to make it even remotely affordable must have been somewhat frustrating. Comparing the track list to the discographical notes, the full context of this is realized. The box is impeccably organized album by album to be sure, but not necessarily in the chronological order of release. An example: on discs one and two, the albums New York, Fall 1974, and its successor, Five Pieces, 1975 are successive, but then Duets, 1976 (with Abrams) was released after Creative Orchestra Music 1976. This is followed by the first four tracks from Alto Saxophone Improvisations, 1979, which continues and is completed on disc three, etc. That said, there is wonderful aesthetic and principled logic involved in the sound and dynamic of the organization of these discs. In other words, even if an original album is split by disc, it makes complete sense. For instance, while some records are split over various CDs, the decision to give For Four Orchestras its own disc (the final one) was a wise one. The package itself is typical Mosaic: high class presentation with an amazing track by track essay by Braxton's student and collaborator Mike Heffley, a brief reminiscence by Cuscuna, a boatload of killer session photographs, and exhaustive discographical and personnel information. The sound is literally pristine and full of warmth. One can hear no flaws from the source material even when A-B'ed against the original LPs; this is even true of the live Montreux/Berlin Concerts.
Most importantly, however, is that this music from Braxton sounds and feels so on time in the 21st century. This is not only true in its scope and vision, but also in what is realized in its execution. Where John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman expanded the possibilities for new colors and sounds in jazz, less (or no) credit is given to West Coast players like Jimmy Giuffre and Warne Marsh, except in Braxton's sound worlds. His investigations in using the jazz tradition in order to unmake it in terms of tonality, sound, and texture, while preserving its sense of inventive rhythm, melody, harmonic structures, and even swing (check Creative Orchestra Music, 1976), do not feel remotely academic all these decades later. One can hear humor and warmth in the deep paradoxes of a brilliant mind wrestling with the issues of jazz and new music, challenging his own and accepted notions of their accepted places in the world of sonic architecture. Also, in his most direct exercises, there lies the deep expressiveness of his incessant effort to assimilate his discoveries into an ever-expanding organizational system of sound. This is heard, whether it's in his playing of jazz standards or his original compositions. It's there in the process of conception as well as technical articulation. Nothing here feels quaint or nostalgic. Instead, it's revelatory and engaging, inviting and still provocative. The historic reissue of this material adds yet another level if we wish to deepen our understanding of the myriad ways Braxton has enhanced and expanded each of the traditions he's involved himself with.