I first met Anthony Braxton in 1970 when he moved to New York and joined Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul to form Circle. Looking back, I can’t imagine four more disparate personalities or four nicer people. After Circle disbanded, Anthony returned to Paris where he’d live in 1969. In 1971, work for American “avant garde” musicians was far more plentiful in Europe than at home.
But gradually things started to turn in New York and later the rest of the country. Thanks in great part to the lofts popping up in downtown Manhattan (initiated by Sam River’s pioneering Studio Rivbea), an audience for contemporary music was growing and thus opportunities for musicians to work and record increased.
In 1974, I called Anthony in Paris and pleaded with him to come back to New York because I had two major labels that wanted to sign him! He was wary but returned and wisely chose Clive Davis’s newly formed Arista label over Atlantic for one reason: Steve Backer. A former regional promotion/marketing man for Elektra Records, Steve headed Impulse Records for two years before making a production deal with Clive Davis in 1974 on the soon-to-become Arista label.
Steve was a passionate and erudite advocate for contemporary jazz at a time when few others were; he could sell it to the record company establishment and market it to a larger audience than it has had since Coltrane’s passing. Anthony knew instantly that he wanted this guy in his corner.
So began a six-year adventure. I would have been content to sit in New York and record Anthony’s quartet with Kenny Wheeler (later George Lewis), Dave Holland and Barry Altschul every day for those six years; I loved that band and those people. It was wonderful spending so much time with them and hearing them play live frequently in those years.
But Anthony had other ideas – lots of them. And they took us to Oberlin, Ohio, Chicago, Woodstock, Montreux, Berlin and Milano on a variety of projects, most of which seemed impossible for various logistical or budgetary reasons.
Anthony had a way about him that convinced you that the impossible was doable and needed to be done. I lived in an interesting blend of excited anticipation and dread when it came time to plan another album. His indomitable work ethic and child-like enthusiasm were contagious.
Ironically, I remember one of the more difficult projects to be one of the simplest, Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979. We were ensconced at a basement studio on Greene Street in lower Manhattan for two days in November 1978 with Kurt Munkasci, Philip Glass’s sound man. Anthony came with ten originals and three jazz pieces that he wanted to interpret. He had very specific ideas about how each piece should sound and worked long, hard hours to realize what was in his head. There was little that Kurt or I could do to help the situation. Anthony was a man alone, making exacting and high demands on himself. He even went in to the studio for one day seven months later to re-do several of the pieces.
But those sessions were the exception. Whatever the challenges of a project or the difficulty or seriousness of the music, my most vivid memories of these sessions is the joy and laughter that permeated each one. You see, behind the intense artist-composer-theoretician-educator lurks a warm, fun guy with a great sense of humor. In fact, one of our favorite pastimes together was to find the worst low budget horror movie in Times Square (pre-Guiliani and Disney when it was still seedy and had character) and go in and laugh our asses off.
Geography and time took its toll on our friendship. The best part of this Mosaic release for me has been renewing that friendship. When the project began, Anthony and Steve got together at my house. After ten minutes, twenty-odd years melted away and the wine flowed.
- Michael Cuscuna