Episode 66 of the Burning Ambulance Podcast features an interview with Anthony Braxton.
This is an episode I have been hoping to present since this podcast began. I’ve been requesting interviews with Anthony Braxton for years, but never gotten the okay until this month. And you know what? In retrospect, I’m glad it took as long as it did. You know the saying “When the student is ready, the master appears”? Bill Dixon said that to me when I interviewed him for The Wire, and I feel like it’s absolutely true in the case of the conversation you’re about to listen to. I was not ready to interview Anthony Braxton when I first started asking. As it is, we probably could have talked for at least another hour, and maybe longer; we got along very, very well. Which was frankly not guaranteed going in. This interview didn’t just take years to set up, it also fell through the first time we tried to do it, and I’m not 100 percent sure why but I have some suspicions. I do know that when I was working on re-scheduling it, I sent over my list of proposed questions in advance, which Braxton mentions right at the beginning, when he starts talking about the late Bob Koester from Delmark Records.
I first started listening to Braxton’s music about 20 years ago, and I feel like I’ve had a few major breakthroughs with it in that time, where it kind of made a little more sense to me afterward than it had before. Because it really is a learning process. You hear other things differently after you’ve grappled with his work for a while.
The first big breakthrough for me was the album Quintet (Basel) 1977, which wasn’t released until 2000; it’s a live album that features George Lewis on trombone and Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. It was maybe the second or third thing I’d ever heard by him, so I mostly knew him by reputation still, as someone who made extremely advanced “weird” jazz that didn’t really swing, but it wasn’t free, either. Well, what I heard was not any of those things. It was a nonstop flow of energy, extremely creative but also swinging hard as hell, and the compositions were absolutely recognizable as such. It made perfect sense to me as jazz.
The second breakthrough was when Mosaic Records put out a box set of his Arista albums, which I reviewed for Jazziz. Some of that music was difficult and alienating to my ear, but a lot of it was even more immediately accessible than I had expected it to be. If you’ve never listened to Braxton at all, you could do a whole lot worse than to start with New York, Fall 1974 or Five Pieces 1975, which were two of his first Arista releases and really do seem like his attempts to make music that would catch people’s ear right away.
The third and final breakthrough moment wasn’t an album, it was a book — Forces In Motion, by Graham Lock. Lock went on tour with Braxton’s quartet in England in the mid-80s, watching all the gigs, and interviewing all the group members repeatedly, and he gives you a 360 degree portrait of all of them as musicians and as human beings. It’s one of the best books about music and musicians I’ve ever read, I recommend it unequivocally.
When I was writing this intro, I looked on the hard drive where I keep most of my music, and I was surprised to find that I only actually own about 40 Anthony Braxton releases, including the individual albums that are contained in the Mosaic box and another box of his Black Saint albums from the 1980s. I honestly thought I had more. But among the others are a 3CD set of large ensemble pieces, a 12CD set of pieces for an a cappella ensemble, a 4CD set of improvisations for quartet, and a 4CD opera, all of which feature one long track per CD. I also have a 7CD set of the music of Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh and other related musicians, an 11CD set of Charlie Parker tunes, a 13CD set of live recordings of standards, and an audio Blu-Ray containing 12 pieces ranging in length from 40 to 70 minutes. All told, I probably have around 80 hours’ worth of Anthony Braxton’s music in my house. If I wanted to, I could spend a long weekend listening to nothing but his work. And that’s probably about ten percent of his total recorded output, maybe less. The man’s catalog could fill a room.
He’s put out two mega releases just this month. The first is that audio Blu-Ray, which is called 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 and features several different ensembles of between six and nine musicians including harp, cello, accordion, and horns, playing as I said long single pieces composed and then improvised upon using a highly specific and codified musical language of Braxton’s own devising.
The second is Quartet (Standards) 2020, the 13CD collection of live recordings from January 2020, when he played nine concerts in three cities: Warsaw, Poland; London, England; and Wels, Austria, with a conventionally structured quartet: saxophone, piano, bass, drums. As its title suggests, they played standards. There are 67 songs on the box, with no repeats. There are tunes by Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Andrew Hill, but there are also several songs by Paul Simon, including a really excellent version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that if I’m being honest reminds me of Aretha Franklin’s version.
In this interview, we talk about both of those releases, as well as the larger issues they reflect. We talk about his compositional languages, the demands he places on the musicians he works with, his relationship to the jazz tradition, Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Dixon, Max Roach, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, and much, much more. It’s one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done, and I’m thrilled to share it with you.