Like any other sub-genre in jazz music free jazz is marked by a timeline of precedent setting events. Many of these moments inevitably center on recordings: Cecil Taylor’s Jazz Advance, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. In the case of the AACM two recordings by members of the association’s roster are widely regarded as points on this continuum- Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound and Anthony Braxton’s For Alto.
Braxton’s recording possesses a further and even more far-reaching distinction in that it was the first extended document of solo saxophone improvisation in the history of recorded music. Coleman Hawkins’ precedent-setting “Picasso” predates it by twenty years but Braxton was the first player open up his horn to a protracted, uninterrupted stream of consciousness discourse. Over three decades after its original release it still has the capacity to dumbfound and astound. Eight pieces, each one a dedication to a peer, a friend or an influence. The opening melodically-tinged track floats across the ears for brief seconds before Braxton’s bell bursts forth full-bore blowing a stream of stentorian blasts in histrionic tribute to minimalist composer John Cage. Given the nature of the dedicatee it’s surprising how much density is packed into the piece’s nine and half minutes. Later pieces act as forums for other facets of Braxton’s formidable technique from multiphonics and breath sounds to split tones and spiraling harmonics. Not all are full frontal assaults either. The pieces dedicated to the Allens and Susan Axelrod are rife with whispy balladic segments sometimes so quiet that the clack of keys against pads and the gulp of breaths can be heard in the mix. What’s more all of the improvisations were recorded in real-time leaving them with a raw, unadorned edge that only serves to make the music even more compelling.
This is a recording and artistic statement that completely changed the rules. Braxton’s gall seemed audacious to some, but revolutionary to far more and the hindsight of history has proven this latter camp correct. His opened the gates for solo improvisatory expression for all players up to the challenge to pass through and in the intervening years many of the giants of improvised music have followed suit. Joe McPhee, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, so many others; all have raised their reeds to their lips on record in the absence of others with only their thoughts and facility to guide them. If it hadn’t been Braxton who led the charge, someone else may have done so eventually. But the fact remains that it was him and For Alto was the catalyst for all that followed.
Tracks:Dedicated to multi-instrumentalist Jack Gell/ To Composer John Cage/ To artist Murray De Pillars/ To pianist Cecil Taylor/ Dedicated to Ann and Peter Allen/ Dedicated to Susan Axelrod/ To my friend Kenny McKenny/ Dedicated to multi-instrumentalist Leroy Jenkins.
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