Saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton turned 75 last week, on June 4. The Tri-Centric Foundation is celebrating this monumental anniversary all year, releasing new music and doing other things; many concerts had been planned, but they’ve obviously been rescheduled. The thing about Braxton, though, is that his catalog is so massive that you’re never going to hear all of it, and there’s always some small miracle lurking in the archives that you can stumble across and be thrilled by. One such album, Town Hall 1972, has gone in and out of print multiple times over the years. Recorded on May 22, 1972, it was originally released in Japan on the Trio label. Twenty years later, it was brought to a slightly wider audience via hat ART, who retitled it Town Hall (Trio & Quintet) 1972. Their version was reissued again in 2011, and in between, a couple of Japanese editions have come and gone. Now there’s a new remastered version, from Trio, released last month, so let’s talk about it.
The first thing you notice about Town Hall 1972 is its striking cover art. Braxton’s eyes, and the tip of his nose, come out of an impossibly dark field of blackness; he seems to regard you, the listener, with some wariness, or possibly be attempting to ward you off. Don’t be intimidated. The music performed at this concert was strikingly beautiful, and should be heard by as many people as possible.
The first half is performed by a trio: Braxton on alto sax, Dave Holland on bass, and Phillip Wilson on drums. They work through a medley of two pieces, “S-37C-67B-F7 Dedicated to the Composer-Percussionist Jerome Cooper” and “G-10 4ZI FK=47 Dedicated to the Composer-Pianist Frederic Rzewski,” for a little over 18 minutes, then play a 14-minute version of the standard “All the Things You Are,” a favorite of beboppers seemingly since the beginning of time. The music begins slowly, Holland laying the groundwork on solo bass and Braxton coming in seemingly from backstage, first off mic then suddenly on, and Wilson dusting the snare with brushes. There may be a fractal, typically Braxtonian melody present (indeed, one emerges around the five-minute mark, and it’s almost beautiful), but it all sounds like pure improvisation to start, ideas pouring from the alto’s bell at the speed of thought, with rapid tonal shifts from post-bebop melody to fierce kissing sounds to raucous “free” snarls. Wilson’s drumming gets faster and more aggressive as the music progresses, accenting a Rashied Ali-esque dicing up of time with bass runs that Morbid Angel‘s Pete Sandoval would envy, but he never truly erupts; the control he displays is breathtaking.
The version of “All the Things You Are” begins with a short but intimidating drum solo, and when Braxton comes in, he’s honking and spitting, the melody broken down into its component notes like they’re stuck in the horn and he’s trying to blast them loose. Soon, he has the instrument tamed to his satisfaction, and he begins to unleash speedy bebop runs, revealing the deep spiritual and creative debt to Charlie Parker that he’s never tried to hide (indeed, he recorded 11 CDs’ worth of Parker’s music in 1993). The piece gets quite wild at times, but never devolves into total chaos; Braxton keeps it within the realm of jazz, albeit a broad definition of that term, throughout.
The concert’s second half features a different ensemble. Braxton expands his arsenal of instruments to include flute, soprano clarinet, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, soprano saxophone, and percussion, and is joined by John Stubblefield on tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet, gong, and percussion. Holland is still on bass, but Wilson is gone, replaced by Barry Altschul on percussion and marimba, and Jeanne Lee is on vocals. The piece has an almost theatrical quality at times — Lee wanders to and fro, murmuring and scatting and occasionally bursting forth in almost operatic phrases, while two and sometimes three people at once are rattling and striking various percussion instruments. It could even be seen as a signpost to the operas he’d compose decades later. And when Braxton and Stubblefield pick up their low-toned clarinets and groan in unison like mournful cetaceans, it’s both ominous and wondrous.
Dip into Anthony Braxton‘s catalog at any point and you’ll find something amazing. I own albums and box sets from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. But I seem to find myself going back most often to records from his first decade or so, beginning with 1968’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz and ending with Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979. Within that stretch, which includes all-time classics like New York, Fall 1974; Trio and Duet; Five Pieces, 1975; The Montreux/Berlin Concerts; Creative Orchestra Music 1976; Quintet (Basel) 1977; The Complete Braxton 1971; For Trio; and many others, Town Hall 1972 deserves pride of place. It sounds like nothing else in his catalog, and because it’s his work, it really sounds like nothing else, period.