Alone Again 

Two new solo sax reissues sound as fresh and forward-thinking as when they were first released

Two new solo sax reissues sound as fresh and forward-thinking as when they were first released

By Ron Wynn

Steve Lacy

Snips (Jazz Magnet)

Anthony Braxton

For Alto (Delmark)

Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton are among a select handful of jazz saxophonists willing to record and perform in a solo setting. Pianists as disparate as Scott Joplin, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett, and Cecil Taylor made their reputations in these singular circumstances. However, it’s been an unspoken, almost ironclad rule in brass and reed circles that only supreme egotists or frauds subject audiences to solo excursions. Though legendary jazz figures Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins occasionally did solo sax dates, even adventurous mavericks like Ornette Coleman have avoided recording sans accompaniment.

But Lacy and Braxton have long been unorthodox players whose techniques, ideals, and personalities make them equally effective working alone or leading combos. Although Lacy began his career playing traditional New Orleans music, and Braxton has long admired staunch jazz traditionalist Paul Desmond, both are champions of original composition and neither even remotely “swings” as a player. They are improvisers in the purest sense; nothing they do is predictable, and they’ve made some of the most uncommercial records in history, even by jazz standards. Though neither has yet been featured on a new domestic release this year, they can both be heard on vital new solo sax reissues.

Lacy made the switch from traditional jazz to the avant garde over 35 years ago, abandoning his original instrument, the clarinet, to master the soprano sax. His 1957 LP Soprano Saxophone predated Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and sparked renewed interest in an instrument that had virtually been forgotten by jazz musicians. For a time, Lacy performed bop material, but he declared his stylistic independence in 1965. His work has gotten noticeably freer over the years, whether he’s playing alongside comrades like Roswell Rudd and Cecil Taylor or heading units featuring the eerie vocals of his spouse Irene Aebi.

Snips, a two-CD set originally recorded at the Environ loft in New York on May 16, 1976, has significant historical importance because it was one of several great “loft jazz” dates. The mid-’70s loft scene spotlighted several dynamic, outstanding players who were ignored by major labels and instead connected with audiences by hosting concerts and recording sessions in large Manhattan loft spaces. The trend only lasted a few years and was a footnote by the mid-’80s, but lately there’s been renewed interest in this music, and Lacy’s date certainly ranks among the high points.

During this period, Lacy had just returned from one of his lengthy European stays—he currently lives in France—and was making superb, if poorly distributed records for such labels as Black Saint, Axieme, Improvising Artists, and Adelphi. All the songs on Snips are Lacy compositions showcasing varying aspects of his approach. “Hooky” is a wild number with squeaks, bleats, and phrases spewed forth in a dazzling, percussive manner. “The New York Duck” presents bizarre verbal quips punctuated by splintering soprano lines, while the six-part “Tao” moves from solemn statements to piercing screams, back to honks, and then into mournful, edgy moments; Lacy’s pauses, upper-register jumps, and screeches become more vivid as the song concludes. There are moments on the disc when Lacy blows air back through his sax’s mouthpiece to create an unusual sonic effect, while at other times he provides somber lines, playing with a lyricism that demonstrates he’s as effective at soft melodies as he is at discordant passages.

Lacy frequently seems to turn the soprano inside out, sometimes playing so high he almost shatters hearing, then going so low it seems impossible he can stay in tune. He utilizes every trick from distortion to repetition on Snips; the total Steve Lacy package is admirably displayed throughout. It’s disturbing, brilliant, amusing, and amazing.

Until Wynton Marsalis became enormously popular and outspoken, Anthony Braxton reigned as jazz’s most controversial figure. Born in Chicago and a charter member of that city’s influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Braxton alienated conservative listeners and musicians from the start. His 1968 debut Three Compositions of New Jazz proved a shocker; his alto playing was purposely stiff, with complex, at times seemingly endless lines and startling effects. When he dared follow that album with the two-record solo set For Alto, the howls were immediate and vicious. Bop stalwarts like Phil Woods took to the pages of Downbeat to denounce Braxton—even as the publication awarded the album a five-star rating. African American cultural nationalist critic and poet Amiri Baraka labeled him a charlatan and voiced a charge that has subsequently dogged the saxophonist his entire career: He said Braxton was more indebted to and interested in the European tradition than the jazz tradition. Over-simplistic translation: Braxton was an Uncle Tom.

In retrospect, Braxton never claimed to be exclusively, or even mainly, a jazz musician. He considers himself a composer and multi-instrumentalist, interested not only in improvisational fare but in classical and electronic music as well. Though he recorded frequently in the ’70s and ’80s for such labels as Sackville, Arista, Steeplechase, Hat Art, Leo, and Black Saint, his profile and popularity have always been larger in Europe than America. Ironically, Marsalis joined the anti-Braxton legion in the mid-’80s, trashing him in much the same way as Baraka did, minus the coded racial invective. By the early ’90s, Braxton was spending more time as a college professor than a musician. However, he continued cutting dates for Leo, Hat Art, and other tiny independents, among them Knitting Factory, Konnex, No More, and Music & Arts.

For Alto is the record that, for better and worse, put Anthony Braxton on the jazz map. The reissue reconfigures the two-record set as a 73-minute single disc. It doesn’t include any bonus cuts, but it does contain the original artwork, including the inscrutable geometrical diagrams Braxton used to title his compositions. Whether on undulating, edgy pieces like the tributes to John Cage and Cecil Taylor, or the almost 20-minute commemoration dedicated to violinist Leroy Jenkins that echoes the saxophonist’s debt to Lee Konitz, Braxton’s alto playing can be fitful, delightful, atrocious, or arresting, sometimes all in the same song.

The album has retained its outside edge; it sounds even more radical now than it did 32 years ago. Braxton’s dips, swaying phrases, constant reshaping of lines, and dogged stylistic independence are frequently astounding. There’s no question that his clipped phrases, biting tone, and complete lack of blues feeling and sensitivity do seem a repudiation of core jazz techniques. But Braxton is adhering to another, equally important principle: maintaining one’s integrity and personal vision. Even his most ardent enemies, upon revisiting For Alto, must conclude there’s lasting value in pursuing your own course. Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton wouldn’t have it any other way.

Beaucoups of blues

Memphis-based Rooster Blues has scored a coup. This fall, the label is issuing the two-disc CD set And This Is Maxwell Street, featuring vintage performances from many lesser-known Chicago blues performers. The music was originally featured on a 1964 documentary by filmmaker Mike Shea titled And This Is Free.

Shea wanted to make a cinematic portrait of the musicians playing on Maxwell Street in Chicago. While he thought he’d only get second-tier types, instead he found such famous artists as Robert Nighthawk and Johnny Young working alongside youthful players like harmonica player Carey Bell. Others featured in the documentary included Big John Wrencher, Carrie Robinson, Arvella Gray, and the James Brewer gospel ensemble.

A small portion of this music was previously released on a live Robert Nighthawk LP on Rounder in 1980. But most of it has only been available on a poorly distributed, scratchy Japanese import LP. Rooster will not only be issuing 22 tunes domestically for the first time, the label will add comprehensive annotation as well. Besides some of Bell’s earliest recordings, And This Is Maxwell Street features a 21-year-old Michael Bloomfield backing Nighthawk on two selections; his subsequent work improved quite substantially.

Rooster has also released two new discs and one reissue by some relatively unknown but greatly talented artists. Acoustic guitarist/vocalist Jerry “Philadelphia” Ricks moans, sighs, wails, and laments in hypnotic fashion on Many Miles of Blues. He’s just as formidable a singer as Keb’ Mo’ or Corey Harris, though nowhere as versatile or imaginative as Harris. Ricks’ accompaniment and frequently mournful vocals make this a standout set.

Eddie C. Campbell has been playing and singing since the early ’50s, much of that time in obscurity. He was a European favorite throughout the ’80s, but his ’95 comeback CD That’s When I Know didn’t make much of a dent. Maybe Campbell’s new Rooster outing Hopes and Dreams will correct these oversights. He’s an even better singer now and has toned down his guitar excesses to concentrate on lyric intepretation and song pacing. Anyone who enjoys gut-wrenching confessionals and unrestrained vocals will enjoy this album.

Also worth noting is the reissue of Lonnie Shields’ highly praised 1992 debut Portrait. Shields’ smashing singing and capable playing, buttressed by relentless grooves from guitarist Big Jack Johnson, keyboardist Frank Frost, and drummer Sam Carr, demolished the then prevailing myth that no one could make credible dirt-floor blues in the ’90s. The disc still sounds great eight years later.

Also worth noting is the reissue of Lonnie Shields’ highly praised 1992 debut Portrait. Shields’ smashing singing and capable playing, buttressed by relentless grooves from guitarist Big Jack Johnson, keyboardist Frank Frost, and drummer Sam Carr, demolished the then prevailing myth that no one could make credible dirt-floor blues in the ’90s. The disc still sounds great eight years later.

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