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Extended Analysis

Anthony Braxton: 23 Standards

By Published: January 26, 2005
Anthony Braxton
23 Standards
Leo Records

Anthony Braxton returns with a 4-disc set that resumes where 2001's 8 Standards left off. 23 Standards features the same quartet as the previous release, again touring the archives of jazz and popular song composition to come up with a refreshing and varied program of familiar tunes to work with. Joining Braxton, longtime collaborator Kevin Norton executes percussion, and Andy Eulau plays bass. Remarkable newcomer guitarist Kevin O'Neil exhausts his fretboard on every track, maintaining carpal tunnel inducing runs and tasteful chorded accompaniment. For all his startling compositions with scary chemical equation titles and librarian persona, here Braxton leaves no doubt how rooted in the jazz tradition he remains.

Gems include Sammy Kahn & Jimmy Van Heusen's "Only the Lonely." Played in duet, the heart tugging ballad backs Braxton's reticent phrasing with O'Neil's bell tone chords. Suddenly, all structure dissipates and they maintain the tempo and tone with free improv. Gracefully, they reenter the ballad and nestle it home. Pumping a load of Geritol into "After You've Gone," they take the old girl out dancing and everyone's young again. Eulau maintains a deadly pace on bass, Braxton exuberant on alto. With Norton riding the cymbal, O'Neil peels measure after measure of inhuman technique joined to encyclopedic imagination.

On Meyer & Kahn's "Crazy Rhythm" there are moments this could be Jim Hall and Paul Desmond, except here the alto's had the martini as Braxton tinkers with syntax, timing, phrasing, harmony simultaneously with the trio greased in downhill semi mode. When Eulau and Norton break it down with a duet, O'Neil snaps it back with an electrifying declaration. Dazzling for it's sheer velocity, there are no spare notes. From his blistering post bop mastery to his ease slipping briefly out with Braxton, to his nudging accompaniment, he steals an impressive show.

They bring toy box fun to Monk's "Off Minor." This band likes their Monk spiky, and they play to sharp turns. Braxton's shaky snaky soprano flies unscathed through the cactus garden, then O'Neil follows with flashing finger work. Later in the set they deliver a fog and moonlight take on "Round Midnight." Braxton caresses the theme and its variations on alto, the band appositely sultry. Eulau plays a thoughtful solo, then O'Neil stays blue with lightning deliveries and precise hesitations.

The bossa nova craze gets a nod with interpretations of Jobim's "Desafinado," and Luis Bonfa's "Black Orpheus." The former begins with familiar Braxton minimalism, muted guitar strings, bass piano arco. Norton's vibes add color, and the soprano doesn't state the theme until three quarters into the performance. Braxton plays a slightly sharp sopranino for "Black Orpheus." O'Neil thrives in guitarist Bonfa's composition, while Braxton sounds like a soulful oboe.

John Coltrane receives his due in three interpretations, beginning with "26-1." The group gives it a looser swing than Trane, Braxton effusively inventive, and O'Neil going from stroll to sprint. A blistering double improvisation has O'Neil and Braxton flying over the rhythm section on "Giant Steps." Braxton successfully takes on Trane's lip lacerating solo on the brisk "Countdown."

The quartet plays an affectionate take on Sam Rivers' sunny "Beatrice." The alto communicates tenderness and longing on Vernon Duke's "I Can't Get Started," and O'Neil keeps a straight face quoting the Woody Woodpecker song.

This is crucial listening for anyone who cares about this catalogue of songs, Braxton shoulders open a doorway to a viable jazz future. Rather than presenting an airless mummified Sunday afternoon at the Jazz Museum, the band's ability to dance with history and buy it a drink resembles the time traveling sensibilities of Mingus and Kirk. Release is limited to 1000 copies.

Personnel: Anthony Braxton, reed; Kevin O'Neil, guitar; Kevin Norton, percussion; Andy Eulau, bass.

Track Listing: DIsc 1: Crazy Rhythm; Off Minor; Desafinado; 26-1; Why Shouldn't I; Giant Steps.
Disc 2:Tangerine; Black Orpheus; Round Midnight; Ju Ju; After You've Gone.
Disc 3: Everything I Love; I Can't get Started; It's a Raggy Waltz; Countdown; Blue in Green; Beatrice.
Disc 4: Only the Lonely; Recorda Me; Ill Wind; I'll be Easy to Find; Three to Get Ready; Dolphin Dance.

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