As a visionary with a fiercely independent approach to music-making, Anthony Braxton can be difficult to approach. It's not just that his compositions are annotated using pictures, that his musical world view revolves around a highly developed philosophy of restructural cycles, or that he's gone so far as to compose a work for intergalactic orchestra. You don't really have to travel outside the solar system to grasp what he has to say. But when he touches down inside the sphere of the jazz tradition, he brings just enough familiarity to the situation that a novice listener can pick up the threads that lead off into Braxton's great beyond.
Braxton's 1993 Charlie Parker Project is part of a handful of recordings where the composer and saxophonist has drawn from standards material. Other examples exist on Steeplechase, Magenta, CIMP, Barking Hoop, and most recently Leo, but if you had to pick just one from this category to spin, the Charlie Parker Project would probably be it.
The two discs that comprise this just-reissued recording date from 1993 performances in Zurich and Köln with saxophonist Ari Brown, trumpeter Paul Smoker, pianist Misha Mengelberg, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummers Han Bennink or Pheeroan AkLaff. Most of the compositions come from the pen of Parker. In Graham Lock's liner note interview, the leader homes in on the blues as a central feature which must be properly incorporated in order to enter Parker's music, but there's obviously a whole lot more to getting it right.
"Yardbird Suite" gets started as a loosely melancholic affair, horns circling overhead while Mengelberg punctuates the canvas with tight chords, then segues seamlessly into the main theme, delivered authentically with just enough understated swing to bring back nostalgia. After a sweet saxophone solo, the pianist returns in full-on Monk mode, peppering his melodies with brief stabs and thrusts, eventually yielding to a higher-density statement by Smoker.
Other pieces are taken to much greater degrees of intensity, abstraction, and invention. Overblown cries, vocalized outbursts, and collective improvisation pop up all over the place. The twelve-minute "Dewey Square" finds Braxton focused on chromaticism as a means to work through the changes, reminiscent of the speedy, twisting navigation that Parker used back in the day. Han Bennink makes a fine choice for this effort because he straddles the ground between propulsive swing (whether direct or implied) and colorful accent drumming.
It's worth pausing to remember the mantra of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with which Braxton shares roots: "Great black music: ancient to the future." Charlie Parker may not yet be antique, but it's no easy matter to connect his music with the drive, intensity, and collective freedom that came of age in the '60s and has been honed to a fine edge ever since.
The sheer magnitude of this recording does not in any way compromise its free spirit. The Charlie Parker Project makes all sorts of unexpected connections in a spontaneous, forward-looking way.
Personnel: Anthony Braxton: sopranino and alto saxophones, contrabass clarinet; Ari Brown: tenor and soprano
saxophones; Paul Smoker: trumpet, flugelhorn; Misha Mengelberg: piano; Joe Fonda: bass; Han
Bennink: drums (CD1); Pheeroan AkLaff: drums (CD2).