I always feel self-consciously bourgeois popping off reviews (or quasi-reviews like this one) of money-sucking, ultra-fetishist consumables — even when I have to buy them, which is nearly always. The ne plus ultra of this case might be the Revenant Albert Ayler box. And, yes, I bought one, and have since opened it up just to finger its flowery insides numerous times when the world seems cold and mean, and I realize I’ll never own a Ferrari F430 so I might as well covet this within-reach, insanely juju-infused token of American-surrealist black avatarism. And the music’s pretty cool, too.
Current case in point: The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (Mosaic). This monumental collection of early works by the iconic Mr. Braxton, eagerly anticipated by music geeks the world over, gathers essential, long-OOP works of this essential musician from his first flowering. Solos, duos, trios, quartets, piano duos, big bands and multi-orchestras are enshrined in those rainbow-iridescent grooves. I waited some months before offering up the $136 tithe, and when the blessed tablets finally landed and began to tote up the revs on the holy spinner, my anticipated mystical experience washed out in a wave of letdown. It just wasn’t the same. Boo (h-256) Kelvin–T3 hoo.
Not to be a Braxton braggart, but I was there the first time around. Granted, all that may bestow upon me are some less-than-Gibraltar-solid memories, since I no longer have the LPs upon which to make a proper A/B comparison (and it means, as my teenage daughter reminds me, “You’re so old.”). I do have some OOP RCA/BMG CDs from the late 80s. Just to get this subject out of the way with dispatch, I compared the 1987 BMG
Creative Orchestra Music with the Mosaic disc, and could hear very little difference. Maybe a little more presence and separation (but slightly less highs) in the Mosaic; that’s it. OK, great. On the other hand, my recollection of the Arista vinyl quality ranges from medium to poor, especially handicapping the later releases like
For Trio and Four Orchestras. So it’s fantastic to have this body of work all together in one Mosaic-blessed space, with superb sound, a straight sessionography and never-before-seen period photos. So why the letdown?
My squawk is with the liner notes. Because that’s all they are, is liner notes.
Writer’s credit goes to Mike Heffley, and he’s a righteous choice: musician, former student of AB, and author of The Music of Anthony Braxton (one of the two Braxton books I have not read). No doubt some direction was handed down by Mosaic’s producers (among the latter, the original producer of the sessions, Michael Cuscuna). Heffley’s an engaging writer, very friendly and readable – he even apologizes at one point for getting maybe “overly technical” in his riffs on Braxton’s composerly strategies and musical history discursions. But, by and large we’re given the standard session-by-session rundown provided by Mosaic for all their deluxe box sets. Now, that might be fine for Bobby Hackett or even Andrew Hill, but Braxton? We all know by now that Mr. Braxton’s voice extends beyond the many horns he blows, beyond the bands he presides over and the stages he commands, and well beyond the usual “logic structures” of academe.
Where’s Braxton’s voice?
Unlike the majority of AB’s original Arista releases, the Mosaic box doesn’t give us that essential side to the man: his thorny, loopy composition notes. Not to reinforce a well-worn “nutty professor” caricature of the man — but if nothing else, Braxton’s notes are unique. And, in their seeming arcane impenetrability, they paradoxically draw us closer to him, something Heffley’s otherwise illuminating notes do not do. Hell, the Mosaic honchos should’ve just plopped Heffley and Braxton in a nice café and let the tape run. As anyone who’s spent any time with the dude knows, among his many talents, Braxton is a peerless raconteur.
A heaping helping of both sides of Mr. B come through on the liner notes to
hat ART 1984 – Composition 98, to take one example. Braxton tells us, for instance, “…the progressional realness of world culture has never totally separated its extended information or ritual disciplines to the degree where a given focus is not equally manifested throughout its composite affinity dynamics.” Then, just a few lines later:
“The ‘reception dynamics’ of composition 98 are:
1. Where is dee jazz?
5. What is it?”
Speaking of reissues, I’d love to see this singular OOP entry in the Braxton catalogue made available on CD — including the live set, which the 1990 hat NOW issue left out — but sleeved in the original LP-sized packaging, lovingly laid out and printed with diagrams and photos all over the outside and inside, a postcard (shades of Revenant!), and words — columns and columns of vintage Braxton-speak. Mmmmm.