Bill Smith : imagine the sound: Anthony Braxton & Leo Records

Anthony Braxton & Leo Records

A Continuum

Anthony Braxton and Leo Feigin share a certain persistent determination to document creative music. Leo, as a producer releasing numerous important recordings, beginning in 1979, and Anthony documenting his own music any way he could, starting with “Three Compositions of New Jazz” on the Chicago based label Delmark in 1968. Much has happened for both of them in the ensuing years including a partnership that has continued for the past 18 years starting with the release of the 3 record set – “Anthony Braxton Quartet (London) 1985”. Since that time Leo has released no less than 30 CDs of Braxton’s music. When asked why he was so interested in Anthony Braxton’s music he replied:

“I am convinced that Braxton is, first and foremost, a visionary, and only then a musician. When you deal with a visionary everything must be recorded. We, simple/ordinary folks, may not understand what he is doing, and the meaning of some of his works will become clear in about 30 or 50 years from now. So when I get the material for a release from Braxton I don’t question the artistic merits of the work and I don’t have to like it. I am convinced that his every work is important. That’s why I see my task in presenting the material in the best possible way, to find the best writers to write liner notes, etc.”

“I am enjoying wonderful working and business relationship with Braxton. He is a person of great generosity and tremendous magnanimity, and I think we have a very good rapport. It’s easy to work with him. We have many things to discuss and he always listens, and a horrifying thing for me is that he probably trusts me, for very often he gives me a free hand with his material.”

Leo Feigin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and found his way to England via Israel in 1974, where he worked with the Russian service of the BBC — broadcasting, producing programs, and presenting a weekly jazz show. In 1979, a friend sent him a concert tape with music of the Ganelin Trio, which was smuggled out of Russia by a friendly tourist. And so the idea of creating the Leo label was conceived. As no one had heard of Russian new music Leo decided to start off with two other more “viable” recordings, the first by Chicago pianist Amina Claudine Myers and then saxophonist Keshavan Maslak. The third release was the concert tape from East Berlin, and so the Leo legend began, joining forces with other like minded labels such as Emanem, Ogun, FMP and Intakt.

My relationship with Braxton began in 1973, an important year for the jazz intelligentsia of Toronto. A small group of us, loosely associated with Coda Magazine, had become aware of the activities, through recordings being produced by the likes of Chuck Nessa, that were taking place in Chicago, activities that included saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. Both of them were performing solo saxophone in concert, an art form although not unknown in the jazz world — Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy had already recorded solo pieces — had not been presented as a complete concept. We had found a perfect venue, the 130 seat hall at the St. Clair Music Library, where we decided to present a series of solo concerts. The three artists were Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim). And so began an important personal epoch that would lead me along paths of investigation as yet not imagined. Initially there was no idea that we were involved in the direction that jazz would take, unaware of the importance of our actions, mostly it was a selfish desire to hear this new developing music live.

The primary reason that had induced Braxton to agree to play in this series, was that he was desperately poor and attempting to raise enough money for a return air ticket to Paris where apparently he and his fellow pioneers were more welcome. The concert in Toronto took place on June 16th. Fortuitously he was able to spend a week as my house guest, which allowed me time to interview him. The first major interview that I had ever done with an artist of such importance. The following year, on October 7th, in co-operation with York University we presented him with Richard Teitelbaum, Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Jerome Cooper. From this visit came the Sackville recording “Trio & Duet”. The trio with Teitelbaum and Smith, and the duets of standards with Holland are currently available as Sackville SKCD2-3007. He visited Toronto numerous times over the ensuing years, with a variety of configurations.

The three recordings under consideration partially illustrate the scope of Braxton’s imagination, and eradicate any notions one might have that jazz music has stagnated into college-boy exercises. This of course will come as no surprise as it has always been obvious to modern jazz enthusiasts that his music was a natural extension of previous forms, his level of intelligence and perception unencumbered by populist rhetoric. One of his favourite words, continuum, fits this assertion perfectly.

It is no secret that he has been a massive influence on my life, both intellectually and musically, and that I have championed his music in Coda Magazine for much of the past three decades; but with this said I should point out that I have not always been enamoured by everything he has produced, his range of concepts often being outside my listening capacity. My preference, as I am still at heart a jazz fan, has been for his more “jazz inclined” — if that be the description — projects.

The 4 CD live set of “20 Standards (Quartet) 2003” (Leo CD LR 431/434) is the second project with this marvellous quartet of guitarist Kevin O’Neil, bassist Andy Eulau and percussionist Kevin Norton; its predecessor being “23 Standards (Quartet) 2003 (Leo CD LR 402/405). The chosen material is a jazz fan’s delight, with almost half of the compositions coming from popular show tunes penned by Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein, Vernon Duke, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the like, and the remainder by jazz legends as diverse as Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Paul Desmond and Eddie Harris.

I can’t help but allow history to influence my thoughts, that the quartets of Lee Konitz with Billy Bauer rise up as spectres, as half-century old sentiments; or the Bird-like flights of fancy that emerge when Braxton’s alto saxophone soars above O’Neil’s fleet spikey guitar, this young man’s technique laced with jazz slurs and inflections; or in the more gentle moments Jimmy Guiffre coming to mind, because it is clearly from this past that their music comes. However I should clarify that this is not a copyist homage, but rather a Braxtonian perspective taking from this past information and reassembling it in a most personal and original way. A continuum so to speak.

In recent years I have lost interest in much of what passes as jazz, in the pathetically lethargic recreations of the youthful imitators who have done little to expand the ongoing construct of its form, so it is wonderful to once again reclaim the energetic originality that was the beacon of American jazz music in this set of four exceptional CDs.

“Quintet (London) 2004” (Leo CD LR 449), presents one Braxton original – “Composition 343”, in two parts, with yet another group of “unknown” young players: Taylor Ho Bynum (trumpet), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Chris Dahlgren (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion). Once again it is recorded live, this time by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) at the Royal Festival Hall.

As I’ve already said, I cannot help but refer to the past, and in this instance it is Braxton’s system of composition. From his very earliest recordings, from the late sixties on the Delmark label, it is apparent that he had already devised a compositional system to be developed and catalogued, and this recording in any number of ways harkens back to that system. Once again clarifying the idea of a continuum. Not only does the structure of “Composition 343” remind one of his earlier work, but the principles of improvisation employed by the players suggest that the tutoring of this new assemblage is also based in a developed procedure. Here we get an illustration of his uniqueness, his amazing ability to invent strength in any process he chooses, making each into a distinct project. As with the preceding CD that strength lies in the organization of the complete whole, the landscape being a movable terrain contained within the composition itself, and the ability of the participants to identify the signals that often only subtly insinuate themselves. The composition has the readily identifiable, somewhat peculiar sense of rhythm that makes Braxton’s music so personal, the sonic drama of a story unfolding with the characters in place, conversing with overlapping dialogue, making his intentions, after all these years, crystal clear. The improvisations, mostly collective, float out of the charts each time into a different territory, shape shifting, varying from gently abstracted sound poems to ferocious alto attacks, the energy changing pace but never flagging. Halfway through “Part 1” himself segues momentarily into a melodic, almost balladic song. With this group trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum seems to occupy a prominent role, his muted horn talking, Bubbering as in a jungle band, with Lester Bowie and Leo Smith apparent heroes. Braxton also appears, once again, to have a penchant for brittle guitar textures.

At 49 minutes & 17 seconds “Part 1” ends abruptly with a reading of the composition and Braxton rapidly introduces the band members. Thunderous applause from what sounds like a very large audience. And then there is what appears to be a freely improvised encore. A bonus. More thunderous applause. What a difference a year makes.

The final recording in this dissertation, “TrioTone” (Leo CD LR 416) is once again a live performance from 2003, and is a co-operative trio project with Hungarian pianist György Szabados and Russian percussionist Vladimir Tarasov of Ganelin Trio fame. The latter was featured on Leo’s first Russian release. The three share a political stance when its definition is thought of as the support of particular ideas, principles or commitments. For Braxton the journey was a difficult one as the general attitude toward his music by the jazz press was negative, and it was apparent, even 30 years ago, that many detractors would come to him in his life. As for György Szabados and Vladimir Tarasov their music was developed in a world fraught with government control and political chaos.

In the two previous CD sets Braxton is surrounded by moldable youth, but here we have him working with his peers in a trio of international unity. All three of them of an age group that is hovering on each side of sixty. All three of them with substantial experience in a variety of music forms. Both of the Europeans are actively involved in composed music; Szabados who is an admirer of Bartók and his reinterpretation of Hungarian folk traditions has created the Royal Hungarian Court Orchestra as a format for that country’s evolving musicians. Tarasov is a regular soloist with the Vilniuis State Philharmonic, and in addition to composing music for film, theatre and orchestras, is a visual artist.

The first two of the five pieces are composed by Szabados, with the latter three being short collective explorations. “Trioton”, at 32’ 28”, begins with a delicate bell tone centering and gradually generates a rhythmic motion benefiting from the subtle contributions of Braxton and Tarasov, with the clear and relatively straightforward composed sections forming what could be described as a suite. The second half accelerates the content into an intense brawny power. “Black Toots” comes off as a sprightly, boppy, somewhat old fashioned sounding jazz tune complete with a dazzling sopranino solo and a very jazzy piano section. The first of the three improvised pieces has Braxton setting the stage with a gruff growling alto that his companions poke and probe at until they find their way into an abstracted reality; the second has the piano conjuring up a spatial melodic mood with Braxton at his most gracious, and finally the trio boogie-ing together with vague quotations from an imaginary standard into the final emphatic chord. Throughout this recording the trio bring to the music a level of listening, response and interaction that generates a rarely experienced intelligence.

I have chosen the above recordings to illustrate Anthony Braxton’s genius partly because they are all “live” events, giving the listener the possibility to experience what it may have been like to have attended these events. Nowadays with recording techniques at such a sophisticated level, the quality of sound is equivalent to that of a studio, and the musicians have the opportunity to capture their music in a more natural context, without the confines of a studio or the opinions of a producer hampering the result.

These three examples of Braxton are but a small selection from the 30 CDs that Leo Feigin has produced, and a complete catalogue can be discovered at