By Beppe Colli
Nov. 2, 2008
Though in retrospect they are often seen
as a dry decade (and a period of sterile self-indulgence), at best just
good enough to function as a "guilty pleasure" under the "ironic" light
of "it's so bad, it's good", the Seventies were a long period
of stunning creativity, a true moment of "embarrassment of riches".
This being true of both jazz and rock.
It's true that it was only at the end of
that decade that the (so-called) "Punk-Jazz Connection" (whatever
that means) appeared, but I think it can be said that - though the latter
phenomenon, being "urban and American", got a lot of pages at
a time when press still mattered - it was in the earlier period that both
rock and jazz attained peaks of formal audacity that in many ways have
yet to be surpassed (at least, by something sounding as fresh).
Though obvious reasons of cultural nature
have contributed to this fact being consigned to oblivion, it was mainly
rock fans in Continental Europe - already accustomed to the music of Frank
Zappa, King Crimson, Faust and Henry Cow - that greeted with much enthusiasm
the most daring experiments of US jazz musicians, showing no outrage when
seeing the obvious links to "non-jazz" precursors.
In that time period, Anthony Braxton was
a star. A special talent, sure, but it was also thanks to his being under
contract to a mini-major of those times: Clive Davis's Arista. It's a period
spanning (more or less) six years, from the sessions featured on New York,
Fall 1974 (where a daring jazz quartet is followed by a saxophone quartet,
and a clarinet/synth duo) to the composition appearing on For Two Pianos.
Flanked by those albums are the quartets on Five Pieces 1975 and The Montreux/Berlin
Concerts, the multifaceted Creative Orchestra Music 1976, the interrelation
with Muhal Richard Abrams on Duets 1976, the difficult-to-describe (but
not to listen to) For Trio, the Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979, and
the monumental For Four Orchestras. All material appearing in the recently
released Mosaic Records box set obviously titled The Complete Arista Recordings
Of Anthony Braxton.
A co-founder of Mosaic Records together with
the late Charlie Lourie, Michael Cuscuna is a Producer whose name any jazz
fan worth his/her salt has seen at least once on the cover of a much-loved
album (often alongside Executive Producer Steve Backer): Fanfare For The
Warriors by The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Lester Bowie's albums on Muse,
those on Arista Novus (think: Air and Muhal Richard Abrams), Braxton on
Magenta... and on Arista.
I asked him for an interview, he accepted,
and the interview was conducted by e-mail, last week.
As a first
topic, I'd really like to know a bit about how you developed an interest
in jazz, and music in general; also about the circumstances accounting
for your transition from "fan" to writer and critic.
When I was about
10 years old, I started taking drum lessons. I loved R & B – Jackie
Wilson, Ray Charles, The Coasters etc., but started listening to Gene Krupa-Buddy
Rich and Art Blakey records for the drum solos and eventually began to
listen to and appreciate the music played before and after the drum solos.
I later took
up the saxophone but could not improvise. So when I was in college, I began
doing jazz on the university station in Philadelphia, working in a record
store, meeting musicians and eventually writing for Jazz & Pop, Down
Beat, Rolling Stone etc. through contacts that I had met. I also started
to produce a couple of concerts and tried to help some groups that were
without managers – Paul Bley's trio and Joe Henderson's sextet.
But I really
wanted to produce records so I got lucky when Buddy Guy with whom I had
become friends asked me if I wanted to produce his last album for Vanguard.
We did another one for Blue Thumb. Then I produced some singer-songwriters
Chris Smith and Bonnie Raitt, but during and after college I was offered
high paying jobs as a disc jockey on free form FM underground rock radio.
At the end of
1971, free form radio was gone and all the FM stations had formats and
playlists. So I quit radio. It wasn't fun or creative anymore. An old friend
from Philadelphia Joel Dorn was looking for an assistant so I joined Atlantic
Records as a staff producer. I got to work with a wide variety of artists
from Dave Brubeck to Oscar Brown Jr. and was able to convince Atlantic
to sign the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.
that the first time I saw your name was as Producer on an album by The
Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Fanfare For The Warriors (a fantastic album,
by the way, and one of the first jazz albums I ever bought). I'd like
to know about how you came to know Anthony Braxton's music. What did
you think of it?
I was corresponding
with Bob Koester and Chuck Nessa at Delmark Records and they sent me the
first AACM albums they made. It all fascinated me and I even took a trip
to Chicago in the summer on 1968 to meet and hear a lot of the musicians
like Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams. I didn't
meet Anthony at the time, but loved his first Delmark albums. All of the
Chicago guys each had their own conception and sound and were so new and
different than the New York avant garde. I became a fan of so many of these
I think that
the first Arista album that I bought was The First Minute Of A New Day,
the first one on that label by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. Later,
I bought Patti Smith's first album, and an album by Lou Reed. The first
Braxton on Arista that I bought was Five Pieces 1975. It always looked
strange to me that somebody like Clive Davis would start a jazz subsection
of a label that was obviously meant to be "commercial", and
that he signed somebody whose music was as uncommercial as Braxton's.
Talk about that.
Clive Davis was
trying to build a major label quickly. So that meant signing established
artists like the Kinks or The Grateful Dead and signing cutting-edge artists
who had potential like Patti Smith and Gil Scott-Heron. It also meant having
a full range of music so he made a deal with Steve Backer to start a jazz
division. The Brecker Brothers were a success quickly and Clive allowed
Steve to sign artists like Anthony Braxton as long as they brought good
reviews and prestige to the label. I had convinced Anthony to move back
to New York because I had offers for him from both Atlantic and Arista
Records and I felt these opportunities might go away if he did not take
advantage of them immediately. He chose Arista because Steve was so honest,
believing and committed.
I think it
can be said that when seen in a "jazz framework" Anthony Braxton
appeared as a bizarre figure: he had studied mathematics and philosophy,
played chess, smoked a pipe, and had strange diagrams for his song titles.
Do you suppose that his being such an "unusual" figure for
jazz played a part in the amount of attention he got from the press?
Or was it just Arista's promotion dept. at work?
I think it was
a combination of both. Anthony was getting known in jazz and contemporary
classical circles and was very clear about what he wanted to accomplish
from the beginning. I think it also helped that he was one of the first
AACM musicians who played with nationally known and established jazz musicians
instead of just forming groups with AACM members. His exposure with Circle
(Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul) really helped him.
believed that this music could be accepted far better than it had been
and worked hard to market this music and prove that it could sell well.
I don't have
a clear idea of the way Braxton was considered in the "jazz press" proper,
though I have the impression that his (three) quartet albums and his
Creative Orchestra Music 1976 were greeted with a certain amount of enthusiasm.
Am I wrong?
Yes, his three
quartet albums and Creative Music Orchestra albums were greeted with raves.
Critics who did not like or understand his music just didn't write about
If we consider
the material he recorded for Arista, I think it can be said that his
For Trio album is the moment when things changed. Coming from a "rock"
background, when listening to For Trio I had only to determine if I liked
that album, not whether it adhered to any accepted notion of what "jazz"
was supposed to be. What was your perception of the way the jazz press reacted
I don't remember
what the reviews were like for this album. I've never been interested in
what other writers think and, to this day, I rarely read reviews. I think
features and interviews give the reader so much more.
I only got
to know about the For Four Orchestras album by chance, and the very existence
of the album For Two Pianos remained unknown to me until I bought the
Graham Lock book, Forces In Motion, a few years later. So I assume that
at that point Arista was not interested anymore, right?
were slowing down but this was because the jazz public had a resistence
to projects like these which were totally composed. As long as Steve Backer
was there, Arista was interested. When he left the label, it was right
around the time that Anthony's contract ended. So Anthony did not resign
and other artists that Backer signed went elsewhere as well.
been curious about the kind of contract that Braxton had signed. I mean,
at first I thought that he could only record for Arista, but then I bought
albums on Moers Music and Hat Art while he was still signed to Arista.
Could you talk about this?
on other labels that were recorded while Anthony was on Arista came out
after the Arista deal was over. His contract was exclusive. The material
on Moers or Hat Art were cases where labels approached Anthony later with
existing tapes and made deals with him to release the music.
I became aware
of Mosaic Records thanks to the first Thelonious Monk box set (but too
late to get it!), and I'm the proud owner of the second Monk box set,
and of two Mingus box sets. Though I assume by now the story of Mosaic
to be well-known, could you please give me a compact picture?
Well, in the
early '80s the record business was in very bad shape. My friend Charlie
Lourie who had worked at Blue Note and Warner Bros. and I were both out
of work. We made a proposal to EMI to relaunch Blue Note but they were
not yet ready to add a jazz division. Part of the proposal was box sets,
specifically The Complete Blue Note Recordings Of Thelonious Monk. At some
point, I realized that if we made these limited editions and sold them
via direct mail only, these box sets could be a business in and of itself.
So we started Mosaic Records.
If I remember
correctly, years ago I was asked what box set I would like to see (and
buy!) on Mosaic. I immediately wrote "Braxton on Arista", since
in my opinion this was first-class material that in a way defined an
era. But at the same time I was aware that - when seen in the context
of what's considered to be
"accessible" - this music is really bizarre, and quite difficult.
Francis Davis has talked about "Ornette Coleman's Permanent Revolution".
So I was really surprised to see this box set go on the drawing board, and
now on sale. How risky a choice is it? Has the mainstream changed?
It is not risky
in the sense that we will break even if we sell only 1000 sets. But of
course we need every set to be profitable to pay salaries and costs. I
think the set will do just fine. I had been trying to license this and
other Arista material for a long time. But I never got an answer from the
licensing people at RCA which had bought Arista. Then Sony and BMG merged.
I had a good relationship with the Sony people and they were able to set
up the deal to license Arista material. So I don't think the mainstream
has changed. It was just a matter of finding people who would get the deal
As for my
last question, I'd really like to ask you about memory. I mean, what
Mosaic is doing is to preserve "important cultural artifacts" in
"physical" format. But, as you know, the "spirit of the age" goes
in the opposite direction: impermanence and lack of memory, except for "nostalgia".
Scanning the horizon, what's in store?
There is so much
great recorded jazz in the 20th century that we will never be
at a loss from projects from all eras of jazz. We are going to continue
to produce important physical documents of this music. We are also going
to start a series of LPs as well although the LPs and LP sets won't mirror
the large CD sets.
I'm sure there
is a small jazz audience for downloads, but most jazz fans want documentation,
photography and information. I think physical formats will be with us for
a long time.
© Beppe Colli 2008
| Nov. 2, 2008