A Master of Music, Math, and Chess: Anthony Braxton’s Duets and Three Compositions of New Jazz

By Daniel Garrett

Anthony Braxton, Duets
Music & Arts, 1993

Anthony Braxton, Three Compositions of New Jazz
Delmark, 1991

Listening to saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s album, Duets (1993), with bassist Mario Pavone, on the label Music & Arts, it’s gratifying how much the music actually does sound like a conversation, with one speaker telling a long oddly exhilarating story to someone who listens and makes somber comments. Without words or the human voice, the breath that enters a saxophone, or the fingers on the strings of a bass, must be deft enough to produce a tone, a pace, and an intensity that compel listening, inspire thought, and bring forth feeling. That returns music to a very individual, very private realm. I haven’t listened to jazz in the last several years as much as I used to, as I have been impatient to hear direct and explicit thoughts, though there’s an expansive feel to jazz that I miss: and Anthony Braxton, devoted to music, mathematics, and chess, is a legendary and legendarily complex figure, and he has been the subject of various critical studies, including Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton by Graham Lock (Da Capo, 1988) and The Music of Anthony Braxton by Mike Heffley (Greenwood Publishing, 1996). Ronald Radano in New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton’s Cultural Critique (University of Chicago, 1993) discusses Braxton’s embrace of European modernist and African-American music traditions, specifying “a series of oppositional modalities: composition vs. improvisation, control vs. freedom, order vs. indeterminacy, lyricism vs. abstraction, tonality vs. atonality, jazz vs. concert music, black vs. white” to be found in Braxton’s music (188). However, listening to Braxton’s early Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark, 1991; originally released in 1968, Braxton’s first record) sounds like hearing a family argument, hysterical, with deceptive lulls of understanding and agreement. The liner notes quote Braxton as saying the time of the individual is gone—which now seems one of those bizarre things an artist says when he’s trying to grow beyond his previous limitations, as no one is more individual than Braxton.

Daniel Garrett’s commentary on Anthony Braxton originally appeared in his long article “Iconography,” for Offscreen, a film journal, in 2006.