July 13, 2024

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CD review: Anthony Braxton Solo Bern 1984 First Visit – 2024: Video, CD cover

Werner X Uehlinger, founder of eccentric, brilliant label Hat Hut, if there was ever any doubt, is back. Rejecting retirement to start a new “ezzthetics” label that re-issues avant-garde music from the 60s (and, you know, Charlie Parker, ’cause surely he belongs there, right?), it seemed his days of recording and issuing amazing concerts from some of his favorite musicians was gone.

Suddenly, in March of 2024, a new label called First Visit released a brilliant, previously unissued Cecil Taylor concert, “Live at Fat Tuesdays, February 9 1980”. A little over a month later, this second release arrives, moving to another all-time Uehlinger favorite, Anthony Braxton.

The original Hat Hut/Hat Art/Hatology releases of Braxton’s music cannot be overrated. Looking at my own collection, I see a whole lot of orange Hat-related releases (plus a few of the old hard case CD issues) that cover such amazing projects as the 78 Creative Music Orchestra in Koln set, two major sets from Braxton’s “Forces in Motion” quartet (the four disc “Willisau 91” and “Santa Cruz”), a 1977 quintet gem from Basel, trio wonder-set “Seven Compositions (Trio) 1989”, and so many more.

Add to that list, now in the blue and white colors of First Visit, this astounding solo alto set, which joins the great trilogy of “For Alto”, “Saxophone Improvisations in F” and “Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979”, along with a few other solo live albums, as a definitive document of what Braxton could do. Like all those, this looks at just how many ways an alto saxophone can be played and makes many discoveries in the process.

One point to give this new release: it hits the same notes (literally and figuratively) as the proceeding alto sax solo releases but does so with shorter songs. On each of the three studio releases, some pieces ran nearly to sidelong length, yet here, the longest track is 5:02. Not that it puts this above the earlier releases, but it does keep the sounds changing throughout and, if one doesn’t like one piece that’s a little harsh or prioritizing the clacking of the keys or the breath into the mouthpiece, no worries: it will all move along soon.

The opening quartet of “Composition 99B”, “Composition 77H”, a cover of Braxton fave “Alone Together”, and “Composition 170C” demonstrate well what this concert does. The first is up down and all over, hitting a lot of dissonant notes yet keeping a momentum. After the applause (this is a very appreciative crowd), Braxton launches into the less turbulent tides of “77H”, which is meditative and even relaxing. “Alone Together” stays in the softer zone, yet is another thing entirely, a swinging response.

Mostly, this track belongs in his “In the Tradition” series of (mostly) faithful adaptations, though it begins to build more ‘out’ as it goes along. Speaking of out, “170C” is almost entirely overblowing, shrieks and squeals of a force that somehow keeps building until it suddenly ends. In just four songs, listeners are treated to the alto sax at several different levels, and the show continues along this path for the duration.

For instance, looking at the two Coltrane covers, “Giant Steps” is off the rails, hiding the theme in crazed runs across the keys before slowing down at the end to play the classic melody straight. “Naima” is brief, reverent and touching. The audience eats it all up and the listener should as well.

It’s also interesting to note just how different tracks within the same series can be. Take “Composition 106”, here represented by “106R” followed immediately by “106J”. The former features the soft touch. The notes scale deliberately, keeping a tension that is offset by the sheer beauty of it all. Jumping in “106J”, he leans back to growl, going up and around the tune in a series of overblows, fits, and spurts. Listen close, though, and that melody is still there, just transformed in the most dramatic way.

There are more of these multiple composition variations throughout, but these two allow for direct comparison. It’s fitting how his differing approaches can make the same composition into something completely different.

Ultimately, it sits at a par with great solo live sets, yet lacks some of the sheer gravitas of the original double album solo alto releases, especially “For Alto”, which really set his career in motion and whose influence seems to grow every year. Uelingher clearly knew something special was here, and here’s to hoping that he has more Braxton greats in the archive. As the concert ends on a short, stellar, straight take on standard “I’ll Remember”, it’s a reminder of all the things Braxton was and could still be, and that’s enough.

“In its entirety, the concert is lively and penetrating evidence of Braxton’s remarkable facility, powers of invention, and commitment to his principles at this point in time, with special emphasis on saxophone techniques energizing variables of tone color, texture, and timbre to affect separate phrases, extended lines, and sectional contrasts.” – Art Lange

Producer’s note: “I experienced over many years Anthony Braxton different performances. His solo performance 1984 in Bern belongs into the top tier of Anthony’s best presentation of his own compositions including two works by John Coltrane, Giant Steps & Naima and two standards, Alone Together & I Remember You.” – Werner X. Uehlinger

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