Bespectacled, tweedy, bristling with intelligence, one could easily mistake him for a professor from some obscure, brainy university (which would be correct), of science or mathematics or philosophy (actually music, though he has an impressive command of those other fields). Anthony Braxton, the musician, is renowned primarily for three traits: fearless experimentation, mountainous technique and a deep devotion to the great work of jazz music's mainline pioneers.
Charlie Parker Project
Scandalously underappreciated here, like so many others he has had to find a paying musical audience on other continents. Presumably even in Europe his edgier work, which can be baffling even for the initiate, doesn't draw the big ticket-buying crowds. Here Braxton finds a way to meet the audience halfway, assembling a blue chip band composed largely of the brightest talents from the fringe of jazz and lovingly attacking the music of one of his great heroes, Charlie Parker.
Braxton's canny approach to Parker's music is to stay near the source, seeking novel, smart and entertaining ways to refashion the familiar shapes. On the opening tune, Tadd Dameron's "Hot House (Braxton wisely doesn't limit himself to tunes written by Parker), the solos come first, the unforgettable melody played one time through only at the very end. Next we hear the first of two renditions of Dizzy Gillespie's overplayed, indelible "Night in Tunisia. After a fairly straight ahead delivery of the iconic theme, the band gradually morphs into abstraction, returning gracefully to earth for the closing refrain. With each tune, Braxton skillfully blends tradition and progress, satisfying the demands of the cognoscenti and pleasing mainstream jazz audiences simultaneously.
Braxton's sidemen here range from the very good to the nearly mythically gifted. Of special note is the presence of one of jazz' last great old masters, pianist Misha Mengelberg, who, as always, exhibits his uncanny, alchemical blend of technique: delicate, forceful, in-the-pocket and out-of-this-world by turns. Mengelberg's erstwhile doppelganger, the nearly peerless, brilliantly boisterous drummer Han Bennink swings ferociously on disc one, a live set. Pheeroan akLaff takes over the drums on disc two and he is powerfully propellent. Ari Brown (tenor/soprano sax), Paul Smoker (trumpet) and Joe Fonda (bass) are all fine, handling the material solidly and holding their own on the solos.
By approaching these tunes more or less head on, Braxton takes more risks even than in his experimental work. On the opening theme of "Dewey Square, he audibly struggles to produce Parker's demanding melodic intervals in brisk tempo, allowing awkward micro-pauses to render jagged what should be a rapid, smooth flow of notes. His solo, however, like most of the solos on both discs, is blistering and liberated. The risk pays off on "Scrapple From the Apple, which Braxton pulls off brilliantly on bass clarinet.
This project could serve as a primer for how to play bebop in the 21st Century - how to play it true and new at once and how good the soloing can and must be.
Braxton convenes a quite different musical meeting with multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine on Shadow Company. This is neither standard jazz nor avant experimentation, but a freely improvised conversation between two gifted players. For 66 minutes and change (broken up into 11 tracks ranging from 28 seconds to nearly 18 minutes in length), wielding four instruments each, the two carry off an exhaustive but not exhausting display of inspired music-making with virtually bottomless technique. This is for lovers of free improvisation at its best.
Charlie Parker Project
Tracks: 1 Hot House [live] Dameron 15:05; 2 A Night in Tunisia [live] Gillespie 9:02; 3 Dewey Square [live] Parker 12:28; 4 Klact-Oveeseds-Tene [live] Parker 8:46; 5 An Oscar for Treadwell [live] Parker 19:37; 6 Bebop Gillespie 8:22; 7 Bongo Bop Parker 6:45; 8 Yardbird Suite Parker 8:14; 9 A Night in Tunisia Gillespie 8:28; 10 Passport Parker 6:30; 11 Klact-Oveeseds-Tene Parker 7:06; 12 Scrapple from the Apple Parker 5:15; 13 Mohawk Parker 2:45; 14 Sippin' at Bells Davis 4:08; 15 Koko Parker 7:36
Personnel: Pheeroan akLaff Drums; Han Bennink Drums; Anthony Braxton Contrabass clarinet, Alto, Soprano Sax; Ari Brown Sax Soprano, Tenor Sax; Joe Fonda Double Bass; Misha Mengelberg Piano; Paul Smoker Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Tracks: 1 Shadow Company, Pt. 1 Braxton, Fine 0:28; 2 Shadow Company, Pt. 2 Braxton, Fine 4:36; 3 Shadow Company, Pt. 3 Braxton, Fine 3:24; 4 Shadow Company, Pt. 4 Braxton, Fine 9:18; 5 Shadow Company, Pt. 5 Braxton, Fine 4:01; 6 Shadow Company, Pt. 6 Braxton, Fine 1:53; 7 Shadow Company, Pt. 7 Braxton, Fine 3:44; 8 Shadow Company, Pt. 8 Braxton, Fine 5:52; 9 Shadow Company, Pt. 9 Braxton, Fine 17:53; 10 Shadow Company, Pt. 10 Braxton, Fine 4:43; 11 Shadow Company, Pt. 11 Braxton, Fine 10:34
Personnel: Anthony Braxton Alto Sax Milo Fine Clarinet, Piano, Drums