Saturday, October 18, 2008


There are several things I've been wanting to write about, but they've all been swept away by my discovery of a recording of a March, 1971 concert by Circle. Now I've got to write a few paragraphs in praise of a true supergroup of avant jazz.

Circle was Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. The group lasted, kind of incredibly, for a year, from around August, 1970 to August of '71. I say that it was incredible that they lasted that long because these four extremely talented musicians, while they shared common areas of musical interest, were pulling in somewhat different directions. They were all interested in and adept at free improvisation - without counting minutes, I would say that about half of their recorded output is improvised without the benefit of any predetermined material. Braxton was just as interested in composition, and presumably felt somewhat limited by the free-blowing format the group often adopted. And Corea's interest in Scientology led him to direct his music energies into more accessible avenues, culminating in the Return to Forever groups.

But during its short life, Circle produced some amazing music. Their recorded legacy is pretty small, though. The best-known Circle album is the ECM Paris Concert, recorded at a February, 1971 show; this was originally released as a double album and has been continually in print since. Three August, 1970 sessions for Blue Note resulted in five and a half LP sides worth of material, released under Corea's name five and eight years later. Japanese Sony released two Circle albums: 50 minutes of a November, 1970 show came out as Live In German Concert (sic), while Gathering documented a long improvisation in a New York Studio. Then there is an obviously bootleg Corea album with a long Circle performance of "Nefertiti" from an Italian concert.

The material ranges from free improvisations to abstract versions of standards ("There is No Greater Love" was a favorite) to originals by Braxton, Corea, and Holland. Braxton's originals were complex and demanding, and it's hard to imagine that any other group at the time could have given him better performances of his music. In this respect, the Hamburg show I recently came across is very revealing. The group recorded Braxton's Composition 6F several times, but this show also includes his Compositions 6A and 6I, as well as Corea's "Rhymes," a piece the group never otherwise recorded.

What a group! Braxton was at his fieriest during this period, and Corea was at his most exploratory and interesting. It was through the Paris Concert album that I became aware of what a virtuoso Dave Holland is, and Altschul's range of percussion colors is amazing. There was plenty of doubling to increase the palette of timbres: Braxton used his full arsenal of woodwinds, from sopranino sax to contrabass clarinet; Holland played cello and guitar as well as bass, and they all doubled on percussion.

These days, Circle seems to be remembered mostly as a way station in Braxton and Corea's careers. About the only serious critical attention I have seen given to the group is in Ronald Radano's book on Braxton, New Musical Figurations. Paris Concert is the place to start checking out Circle. If you like that, search out the other stuff, if you can find it. The Japanese albums are pretty rare*, but the Blue Notes show up in used record stores pretty frequently. The Hamburg show can be found on at A great, detailed discography of the group is at

Long live the music of this short-lived group.

*Of course I have them. Don't be ridiculous.

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