Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


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.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

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.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

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.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

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.

(Soundbite of march music)

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.

(Soundbite of symphony orchestra)

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.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for 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, 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.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: