Jazz is often viewed as a progressive art form, one that by its very nature is constantly changing and reinventing itself. The paradox is that change isn't always what the audience wants to hear, so it frequently takes awhile simply to catch up. Such seems to be the case with the music of Anthony Braxton, one of music's most demanding theorists as well as a prolific talent whose well of creativity seems bottomless. In 2009 Mosaic compiled and issued a boxed set of a good chunk of his work from the '70s, including the acclaimed Creative Orchestra Music (Arista, 1976). Those compositions were reprised on a tour of Europe, and this double-CD presents the Creative Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, two years later. Those curious about Braxton but discouraged by the sheer number of recordings available may find this the place to start. Most of Braxton's work falls into two categoriesmore difficult and less difficultbut these 100 minutes of music are decidedly in the latter category. Braxton is among a handful of jazz composers whose music is part of the graduate-level course in the avant-garde.
Braxton doesn't play in this band, but several familiar names appear on the CD's back cover: reed men Marty Ehrlich, Vinny Golia and Ned Rothenberg. Pianist Marilyn Crispell. Trombonists JD Parran, Ray Anderson and George Lewis. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. It's a testament to Braxton's influence, esteem and ability to recognize and cultivate talent that so many future luminaries were assembled for these shows. Had Bob Ostertag, whose synthesizer defines the opening piece of the first set ("Language Improvisations") ever conceived of producing his bleeps and bloops in such a setting? Braxton's compositions are notoriously difficult and this opener sets a daunting precedent, but as Braxton's notated pieces are brought forth, the big band dynamics generate continuous excitement and the soloists are encouraged to create in the moment. Rothenberg on alto and Anderson on trombone burn and blare as "Composition 45" closes part one.
"Composition 59," which opens the second disc, serves as a transition to what makes this music arguably the most enjoyable of Braxton's career. Ehrlich's sopranino is captivating and as the piece concludes with breathy trumpet sounds and electric synth and guitar noises, it gives way to "Composition 51," clearly in the Duke Ellington tradition with call-and-response sections and hot soloing from Ehrlich and Golia. Finally, it's the closing number, the beloved "Composition 58," here presented in full glorious flower, that blows away all the atonal density. John Philip Sousa marches to New Orleans as Braxton demonstrates that you have to know the rules before you can break them.