23 Standards ( Quartet ) 2003
Release date: 2004/06
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disc 1 - 67'58
1 Crazy Rhythm - 16'50 (Joseph Meyer & Roger Wolfe Kahn)
2 Off Minor - 11'36 (Thelonious Monk)
3 Desafinado - 04'35 (Antonio Carlos Jobim)
4 26-1 - 11'15 (John Coltrane)
5 Why Shouldn't I - 10'42 (Cole Porter)
6 Giant Steps - 12'32 (John Coltrane)
disc 2 - 69'34
1 Tangerine - 14'35 (Schertzinger)
2 Black Orpheus - 13'53 (Luois Bonfa)
3 Round Midnight - 13'07 (Thelonious Monk)
4 Ju-Ju - 10'26 (Wayne Shorter)
5 After You've Gone - 17'16 (Creamer & Layton)
disc 3 - 60'57
1 Everything I Love - 12'24 (Cole Porter)
2 I Can't Get Started - 11'09 (Vernon Duke)
3 It's A Raggy Waltz - 10'12 (Dave Brubeck)
4 Countdown - 12'08 (John Coltrane)
5 Blue In Green - 5'11 (Bill Evans)
6 Beatrice - 9'27 (Sam Rivers)
disc 4 - 72'43
1 Only The Lonely - 6'37 (S. Cahn & J. Van Heusen)
2 Recorda Me - 15'52 (Henderson)
3 Ill Wind - 17'00 (Harold Arlen)
4 I'll Be Easy To Find - 11'29 (B. Howard)
5 Three To Get Ready - 10'29 (Dave Brubeck)
6 Dolphin Dance - 10'47 (Herbie Hancock)
|( Collapse liner notes )|
Some 35 years into Anthony Braxton's recording career, it's safe to say that it already constitutes a vast and extraordinary body of work, as dense in meaning and original in contour as that of any living musician. Even the individual facets of his music can be vast and delightful, witness these four CDs of 23 Standards (Quartet) 2003, a work of such spectacular accomplishment, joyous interaction and teeming life that it might well go into the world without the encumbrance of words.
It's a project that follows in a lineage that begins with the two In the Tradition albums (Steeplechase) and the superb duets with Dave Holland ("The Song Is You," "EmbraceableYou," and "You Go to My Head") recorded in 1974 for Trio and Duet (Sackville). There has since then been a multitude of recordings devoted to the standard and historical jazz repertoires, including individual musician/composers (Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Andrew Hill) and a remarkably varied number of approaches to mixed repertoire. These range from sessions with relatively conventional piano trios (e.g., the two Seven Standards 1985 albums on Magenta and 9 Standards [Quartet] 1993 with the Fred Simmons Trio [Leo]) to the radical approach embodied in his several Piano/Quartet (1994) recordings (on Leo and Arts and Music). There are also distinctive individual CDs like 14 Compositions (Traditional) 1996 (Leo), with multi-instrumentalist Stewart Gillmor, that's devoted to early jazz and blues composers like W.C. Handy, Earl Hines, Hoagy Carmichael, and Fats Waller.
The present quartet with Kevin O'Neil, Andy Eulau and Kevin Norton is the most sustained of Braxton ensembles gathered for the performance of standard repertoire (or other musicians' compositions when the term "standard" starts to bend). The group began recording in 2000 with CDs largely devoted to Andrew Hill compositions for the CIMP label: Ten Compositions (Quartet) 2000 (with six Hill compositions, two by George Coleman, and one each by Wayne Shorter and Billy Lester) and Nine Compositions (Hill) 2000 — the latter with trumpeter Paul Smoker and saxophonist Steve Lehman added to the group. Those CDs represented a significant acknowledgement of one of jazz's most under-recognized, genuinely major composer/musicians and demonstrated this group's ability both to perform and transform the internal dynamics of the post-bop jazz ensemble, with a touch both lighter and freer than has been customary. The quartet's breadth became more apparent in the superb two-CD set 8 Standards (Wesleyan) 2001, on Kevin Norton's Barking Hoop label (www.kevinnorton.com), the band's grasp extending to tunes by Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman. The instrumentation of this quartet — alto saxophone (or the higher soprano or sopranino) with guitar, bass and drums — is fairly unusual, reminiscent of the work of Lee Konitz with Billy Bauer and also the superb quartet that Paul Desmond led with Jim Hall (Desmond also recorded in a similar format in Toronto with the very fine, if internationally under-known guitarist Ed Bickert). Despite the heightened intensity of the Braxton quartet, the instrumentation retains a transparency, a porosity, in which every nuance of every instrument is present in immediate detail, including Norton's marvelously glassy cymbal work and subtly shifting accents and Eulau's springy beat and sometimes surprising leaps. They're a great rhythm section, able to maintain this music's conventions and also ably to step lightly in and out of form for Braxton's more fevered onslaughts. The combination of delicacy and rigour that Norton manifests in his solo on "Everything I Love" is an index of his talents, as is Eulau's lovely melodic flow in his solo on "Round Midnight," or how frequently and beautifully his lines and subsequent solos dovetail with Kevin O'Neil's.
That there is something very wrong with the current jazz business is apparent in many ways, but one of the clearest indicators is that Kevin O'Neil isn't famous (hasn't even been signed and dropped by a series of "major" labels). He is simply the most remarkable musician to emerge on guitar (that most marketable of instruments) in a decade, and (at 35) as gifted as any musician of his generation. Apart from his wonderful recordings with Braxton he has also recorded with Steve Lehman (CIMP) and has recorded his debut as leader with a CD-length piece of genuine originality, Sous Rature (Barking Hoop). O'Neil appears in a long line of Braxton discoveries, a list of musicians who represent the highest echelon of creative music in America: George Lewis, Ray Anderson, Marilyn Crispell and Gerry Hemingway among them.
O'Neil uses as much of the jazz guitar tradition as any musician might. Reaching back to Django in some ways, he's very much in tune with the largely forgotten lineage of guitarists like Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow, and most particularly the great Billy Bauer, whose remarkably rapid and abstract lines with Lennie Tristano once made him a guitar avant-garde of one in the 40s and '50s. Add to that clean-lined approach some of the electronic flurry of Sonny Sharrock and you have just the beginning of a musician whose mind and hands are perfectly attuned in one of the most complete and original guitar visions to arrive in many years. Technique? O'Neil's high speed, whirling arpeggios sound like he has practised Coltrane's cadenza from the Birdland recording of "I Want to Talk about You," as Coltrane once practised from harp manuals. Even after one is attuned to his virtuosity, there are still surprises, like the unusual block-chord passage on Wayne Shorter's "Ju-Ju" or the staggering range of techniques that he applies to "I Can't Get Started." In the sphere of Braxton's music, O'Neil's performance is closely akin to Marty Ehrlich's work in the Piano Quartet of 1994. Like Ehrlich, O'Neil is more conservative (often elegantly) than Braxton and forms with him an extraordinary dialogue on the tradition, repeatedly creating two and more dimensions of it simultaneously.
It's the fluid command of structure that this group evinces that allows Braxton to turn in some of his finest performances in the tradition, whether it's the limpidly serene ballad work on some of the standards or the marvelous "in and out" saxophone playing on tunes like "Ju-Ju" and the fierce "Countdown," leaping between the intervals of the structure like Sam Rivers or Joe Henderson, a true son of the '60s. In part, the brilliance of Braxton's reclamation of the jazz past consists in the breadth of his love and acceptance of so much of the wildly sectarian 1960s. There are tunes by Rivers (the gorgeous "Beatrice") and Henderson as well as Wayne Shorter, the leading tenors of the Blue Note post-bop style and its partial accommodation of free jazz. Between "26-1," "Giant Steps" and "Countdown," there's a virtual homage to Coltrane circa 1959, while there's enough Bossa Nova – "Desafinado," Black Orpheus," "Recorda Me"(Henderson's hard bossa) — to suggest Anthony Braxton: The Bossa Nova Years. In fact that marvelous Paul Desmond quartet with Jim Hall was among the very first groups to record Bossa Nova songs, based on an early state department tour of Brazil that Hall made. So that's all grist for Braxton's creative mill, including, too, compositions by Dave Brubeck, Desmond's usual employer and Hall's stylistic opposite. Braxton's own playing fuses every outside alto technique perfected by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Lyons and Marshall Allen, as well as Ayler and Trane-isms and Braxton's own wealth of devices, and his sheer intensity welds this music into an expressionist tapestry that both records and transforms that era, all its disparate parts weaving through each other and creating new melds and meanings in the process. Some of the most outside playing comes on Brubeck's "It's a Raggy Waltz," while "Desafinado" becomes a bizarre tone poem. Making Known
It could be argued that Braxton would be a major figure in jazz based solely on his covers of historical repertoire, but what informs this material is the same mind that has created his enormous output of original compositions. In a sense, these recordings represent a kind of holiday from the very demands of those compositions — for composer, performer and listener alike — but they are holidays with genuinely recreational purposes. They're about a received common language and the way one makes a tradition one's own. There are a couple of ideas about influence deriving from literary theory that may have some bearing here. One is from T.S. Eliot, who in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" postulated that a major poet alters the way we read the poetry that has gone before him, altering the prior tradition at the same time that he extends it. A kind of variant of this idea appears in Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, in which writers are able to extend the tradition by misunderstanding their forebears.
It is part of Braxton's method as a composer/performer to create systems that break down, change, are re-shaped in the process of his making. This process is, of course, an extension of the improvisatory principle on which jazz is founded, in which each version or performance of a song is a new work. But Braxton re-unites with the tradition by calling up its repertoire for often radical re-readings. In this sense, Braxton remakes the tradition in each new performance because of the special force he and the group bring to the act of collective improvisation. The group concept is extended beyond the members of the band to the collectivist character of the tradition at large. The difference between a Braxton performance of a canonical work and the performance by any of the current neo-traditionalists is that the work (its meaning, its messages) is again indeterminate, again liable to new mutations. It is in the imagination of this larger collectivity that the tradition comes alive, and with it the possibilities of risk and meaning.
While I have suggested that this is a kind of holiday from Braxton's own compositions, it is highly significant work, made even more valuable and necessary by the forces of reaction in jazz. If a great artist reinvents the tradition, then a conservative ideologue merely echoes it, diminishes it, makes it less than its extant records. What Braxton is doing here is "making known," a phrase chosen carefully to avoid the failed metaphor of "saying." If Braxton wanted to "say" something, he's quite capable of doing it using words. But music makes meaning in a way that is extra-linguistic or meta-linguistic, something that may be analogous to language, but which is fundamentally different in the way it imprints its messages. What this music does is make known its own assembled views of the music and messages of jazz history; it makes known the social, moral, historical imperatives that drive this music and are embedded in the tradition: it makes known/felt — in ways deeper than words ever might — the spirit of spontaneity, community, change, freedom, life and creation. These are messages of generations of jazz musicians made as new and vital as their original forms.
Our thanks, then, to Anthony Braxton. In an era when the jazz past is regularly Bowdlerized, trivialized and travestied — reduced to little more than a marketing plan — Braxton presents it in much of its true potentiality as the authentic discourse of its time, making both the past and the present (even the future) that much richer than it was before.
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