20 Standards ( Quartet ) 2003
Release date: 2005/04
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Disc 1 - 76'27 1. All the things you are - 20'08 (J. Kern/O. Hammerstein) 2. Lines for Lyons - 13'35 (G. Mulligan) 3. April in Paris - 12'25 (V. Duke) 4. Green Dolphin Street - 16'07 (Kaper/Washington) 5. Blues for Alice - 13'32 (C. Parker) Disc 2 - 78'57 1. Alone together - 18'32 (H. Dietz + A. Schwartz) 2. Waltz for Debbie - 12'28 (B. Evans) 3. For heaven's sake - 13'40 (D. Meyer/Gretton/S. Edward) 4. Freedom Jazz Dance - 14'48 (E. Harris) 5. The song is for you - 19'12 (J. Kern/O. Hammerstein) Disc 3 - 66'32 1. The Duke - 12'24 (D. Brubeck) 2. I love you - 13'48 (C. Porter) 3. Lonnie's lament - 8'05 (J. Coltrane) 4. Blue rondo ala turk - 14'42 (D. Brubeck) 5. Invitation - 17'09 (Kaper/Washington) Disc 4 - 76'38 1. Tune up - 19'15 (M. Davis) 2. Remember - 18'03 (I. Berlin) 3. Moonlight in Vermont - 15'05 (K. Suessdorf) 4. Take five - 10'24 (P. Desmond) 5. Serenity - 13'25 (J. Henderson)
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Since the early 1960s, the "avant-garde" has been largely responsible for maintaining a creative relationship with historical jazz, whether it's Archie Shepp's use of timbres from Ben Webster, Lester Bowie picking up sounds from Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart, Roscoe Mitchell playing saxophones last noticed in the hands of Adrian Rollini, or Albert Ayler's group summoning up the collective wail of the Eureka Brass Band.
While the new "mainstream" has been happy to parrot the few brand names of jazz history, it's the adventurous who have been responsible for preserving the dynamic elements of the jazz past as well as its present and future. The reason: it may well be that the creative process is best understood by creative people. So someone capable of crafting a personal style might have a better grasp of the internal workings of a music than someone satisfied with marketing a parody of the past. It's not, of course, a matter of effort, but depth and inclination. Jazz history is a tapestry of marvelous moments. Anyone immersed in it knows. And it's most joyous to those not doomed and damned to try repeating it by reason of imaginative defect or imagined profit.
Which brings us to Anthony Braxton, the scale of whose creative research mirrors the originality of his own compositions. For a survey of his adventures in the jazz canon you might consult the notes to this set's predecessor, 23 Standards (Quartet) 2003, or better yet, Francesco Martinelli's Anthony Braxton: A Discography (2000), but suffice to say that Braxton has been plumbing the past with the same energy that he's been stretching the present since the early years of his career (among recent reissues is his Donna Lee, a 1972 Paris recording on the America label that includes a high velocity voyage through the Charlie Parker title tune).
The central fact of the present quartet's music is its absolute joy. It's an ecstatic embrace of the canon, performed by master musicians who have all ventured well beyond it on other occasions but who unite here to share in the palpable delight of exploring some of the most distinguished themes of the jazz past.
While Kevin Norton and Kevin O'Neil have both worked with Braxton in performances of his own music, this quartet largely devoted to standard repertoire was first launched with Ten Compositions (Quartet) 2000 (on CIMP), playing repertoire by Andrew Hill. In many ways, though, its special character was more apparent on its next release, 8 Standards (Wesleyan) 2001, reaching back to Django Reinhardt's "Nuages" and Benny Goodman's "Lullaby in Rhythm." There's a tradition of light and virtuosic jazz that's rarely touched on today. It begins with the Goodman trios and quartets, the Hot Club of France, and Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five and continues with Red Norvo's trio with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus. It's often high-speed music that uses high-pitched and relatively thin-sounding instruments (e.g. clarinet, guitar, xylophone or vibraphone) to create a transparency that allows each instrument to stand in high relief. It's a tradition that's central to this band, and it strikes an immediate chord with listeners. When Kevin Norton released 8 Standards on his Barking Hoop label, he recalls, "People started contacting me from around the world, saying 'I love this record. It would be great if this quartet could come and play here!'" The result was the two tours of Europe in February and November of 2003 that contributed to the four CDs of 23 Standards and this further set.
This particular culling places special emphasis on the cool school of the 1950s, with compositions by Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck and (a late but essential entrant to the academy) Bill Evans. It's often been a maligned school (and some of it worthy of that abuse), but its qualities and significance are still frequently overlooked. It cultivated from the Miles Davis nonet on a transparency of group timbre that clarified complex voicings and encouraged the counterpoint that ran from the Mulligan quartet to the MJQ to the various incarnations of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 and the Evans trio. It often embodied an abstract sense of play and was open to free jazz innovations, from Lennie Tristano to Ornette Coleman, who found his first significant supporters among cool school figures like John Lewis and Lester Koenig. Among Braxton's first saxophone influences was Paul Desmond, just as Julius Hemphill found inspiration in Lee Konitz.
All those connections from the Goodman trio to the Giuffre 3 are apparent in the quartet's instrumentation, in that determinedly light sound however heated that comes from coupling Braxton's high reeds (alto, soprano and sopranino) and Kevin O'Neil's guitar, recalling great partnerships like Konitz and Bauer, Getz and Raney, or Desmond and Hall. Kevin Norton's glockenspiel sometimes chimes in with the dancing metallic percussion associated with xylophone or vibraphone. On the most immediate level, it's a happy sound, and whatever the complexities that this group achieves, it always connects to the joyous tradition of jazz. Form here is connected directly to mood, and I suspect that it's related to these musicians' other resources and venues. The lightness of sound that the group begins with facilitates the way it levitates jazz history.
Kevin Norton's remarks on the group process are germane here: "Usually we would get to a town and Anthony would pick the pieces we would play that evening new pieces every night, never repeating anything and we would go over the written material at soundcheck. We worked hard but it was always fresh and spontaneous." Norton was intensely conscious of the stage set-up and its relationship to group dynamics. His remarks also show the special enthusiasm that this group brings to Braxton's projects, "Anthony is an intense player but not a very loud player, so I liked to set up close to him so that I could get as much of the acoustic horn vibrations hitting me as possible. On these recordings you can hear the nuance in Anthony's phrasing the little dynamic changes on held notes, for instance on 'Line for Lyons.' It also includes a great solo that displays that Anthony always knows the changes and the form and his rhythms are always free of clich้. 'Line for Lyons' is also a great example of how a piece can morph into so many areas and still remain inwardly coherent through group communication." Norton also emphasizes the ultimately contrapuntal nature of this work. "In jazz, people don't often hear the 'teamwork' that goes into a performance. The rhythm section 'supports' the soloist because everyone (hopefully) is working towards the total, resultant sound. Anthony told me one time that he felt that we were 'in total communication in the music' even thought I was functioning as the 'timekeeper.'" Expanding the jazz moment
Jazz is fundamentally an art of time and Braxton is an artist of time (all kinds of time). Certain kinds of time are embedded in the jazz moment, which is a dynamic principle. It's existential time, improvisation's requirement that one focus on the potential of the now. It's the moment of revelation, of self-consciousness and collective creation. Velocity is a central theme and a central tenet of this group. This is jazz history accelerated, the group's preferred speed opening the moment to more content, notes rushing by toward freedom, just as bop tempos helped open up jazz harmony by tending all notes toward passing tones and grace notes (a method developed by Parker and Powell and later expanded on by Coltrane, Dolphy and Braxton).
Here we enter polyrhythm as an historical principle, history as polyrhythm. Multiple rhythms, values and meanings converge in any individual moment, transforming and expanding the instant. Kevin Norton singles out Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk," noting how the performance tends towards Braxton's own compositions: "It even goes into some Ghost Trance-like territories with the glockenspiel using the 9/8 theme as a trance." Those kinds of surprises abound here, as in Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance." Braxton plays it on the piping sopranino, virtually a wind percussion instrument, giving the theme a strikingly African quality. Almost any given instant is cool and intense, funky and visionary. Its development includes Andy Eulau's deeply rooted bass solo, a bass/drums passage that might reach back to "Big Noise from Winnetka," and a swirling free interlude by Norton and O'Neil that shows just how far afield this band can glide. It even suggests that in the right hands a guitar might eventually master click languages.
In a very real sense this is jazz regained, the music played with sufficient heart and imagination to reanimate this repertoire, so much of it sullied and dulled by clich้d reiterations and the rote-learned running of changes. There's a spring in the step of Andy Eulau's walking bass, a sparkle in the shimmering metal of Norton's percussion, as creative rhythm playing is heard in constant live dialogue with Braxton's horns and O'Neil's guitar, music coming into being in each new moment of this extended (and extending) group dialogue.
Stuart Broomer February 2005
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