At long last. For Alto always seems to arrive late: it wasn't released until a few years after it was recorded, and it only now appears on CD. Braxton has, of course, other solo recordings on CD, but this one is different: it was first. Not just first for him, but first for anyone. Before this, Coleman Hawkins and Eric Dolphy (most notably) had recorded reed solos, but nobody had ever filled an album with them. No one had dared.
This is the notorious and legendary recording that inspired a host of other reed players (notably Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, and Joe McPhee) to record solo themselves. It's the recording that almost killed Mr. Braxton's career just as he had gotten started, for Phil Woods in a venomous Blindfold Test "damned me to hell," as Braxton himself put it, and the man who recorded this masterful music couldn't get a gig. (He almost gave up music altogether, opting instead to play chess for cash against visiting rubes in Greenwich Village.)
So what was the fuss all about? 73 minutes of pure alto saxophone playing, ranging from the barely audible to the mournfully lyrical to the silken and serpentine and to the high country of sound exploration. It's hard now, even among the relative artistic stagnation of the last twenty years (what stagnation, you say? Try this experiment: play a Coleman Hawkins record from 1920 and then one from 1960. Then play a Charles Mingus record from 1960 and the latest Wynton Marsalis recording. You'll see what I mean.) - even among the present-day stagnation, it's hard to see what had Phil Woods up in arms. Certainly the eighth track (all are named with Braxtonian diagrams, so I'll refer to them by their dedications), dedicated to violinist extraordinaire Leroy Jenkins, has a bit of a falling-in-a-pothole effect: it's an almost twenty-minute exploration of dynamics revolving around recurring blurts; maybe it goes on a bit too long. Otherwise, what can you say? It's beautiful music. It has a wide range of emotional resonance. It is built for solo alto - which is why it was so groundbreaking. In other words, it isn't just soloing without a rhythm section. It's a new kind of playing that doesn't move the listener to long for some other gentlemen to start their engines. It can be listened to many times - and invites you to do so - for much of the beauty and interest is in the minutiae, the minute and fleeting edifices that Braxton builds and then moves on to build another.
Anthony Braxton was clearly an alto saxophonist of tremendous facility in 1969 - as he is now. The courage and vision showed on this record is simply breathtaking. Thanks to Delmark for finally getting this out on CD. It belongs in every serious jazz collection, and not just on the shelf, either. If you have open ears, you're liable not to be able to get it out of the player.