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TERRY GROSS, host:

In jazz and contemporary music, Anthony Braxton is king of the box sets. Last year, his releases included a six-CD box set of jazz standards, four-disk boxes of Braxton in solo, duo and quartet settings and a nine-CD set documenting his composed music for piano. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews one more Braxton box, eight CDs of recordings from the 1970s. Kevin says they point the way toward the diverse projects he's involved with now.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Anthony Braxton is a prolific composer, saxophonist and clarinetist. He's mentored dozens of improvisers. As all his box sets suggest, he has a devoted following. But to some of the jazz police, his interest in modern classical music and his convoluted or halting rhythms make him a one-man crime wave. Still, in the '70s, he was one of jazz's great hopes, not because he was the heaviest swinger, but because he was bursting with ideas.

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WHITEHEAD: Barry Altschul on drums. That's music from "The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton," from the Web order house Mosaic. The box's long unavailable treasures from the 1970s include three albums featuring terrific quartets with Dave Holland on bass; George Lewis was on trombone or Kenny Wheeler on trumpet. Braxton lays out concepts you'd mine for decades, slipping in ice rhythms, complicated stop-time beats for bass and drums, pulsing horns and minimalist repetitions.

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WHITEHEAD: Anthony Braxton's Arista recordings include wind solo and trio albums, and duets with Dave Holland and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who joins Braxton in tweaking Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." There's also the celebrated LP, "Creative Orchestra Music 1976," for a big band morphing into a new music ensemble, and on one number, into John Phillip Sousa's band, marching into a wall.

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WHITEHEAD: Jon Faddis on piccolo trumpet. If Braxton had just stuck to eccentric jazz records, the watchdogs might have let him be. The zigzag solo shouldn't bug anyone who digs excitable Eric Dolphy. But Braxton talked his major label into recording his music for four symphony orchestras and for two pianos. They're in another idiom, but have his idiosyncratic flow.

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WHITEHEAD: Box annotator Mike Heffley says those classical albums demolished whatever jazz cred Braxton had built up in the '70s. But that was no concern of Anthony Braxton's. He wanted to get his whole program out there while he had the chance. His appetite's too big for just one kind of music.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton" from the Web order house Mosaic. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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